Brandon Bernard Executed As Accomplice In Murder Of Texas Couple, Sparking Debate About Death Penalty
Brandon Bernard was executed Thursday for being an accomplice to the torture and murder of a couple back in 1999. His execution follows months-long appeals to President Trump and the Supreme Court from Bernard’s lawyers, prosecutors and jurors in his original conviction, and outsiders following his case to reconsider the death penalty, the last of which were denied just two and a half hours before his death.
“I do not believe that Brandon should be executed for bad choices he made when he was 18,” one juror wrote in a petition to the White House.
Bernard’s attorney, Robert C. Owen, pointed to that statement, as well as those from four other jurors from Bernard’s trial stating that they no longer support his execution, to argue that Bernard’s death penalty may not be constitutional.
“Brandon made one terrible mistake at age 18,” Owen said. “But he did not kill anyone, and he never stopped feeling shame and profound remorse for his actions in the crime that took the lives of Todd and Stacie Bagley. And he spent the rest of his life sincerely trying to show, as he put it, that he ‘was not that person.'”
The Bagleys had been headed back from a church service in Texas when they were murdered on June 21, 1999. After stopping by a convenience store on their way home, they were approached by Bernard and his friends, all teenagers at the time, who planned to rob them after ringleader Christopher Vialva was kicked out of his home.
Vialva forced the couple into the trunk of their car at gunpoint, driving around for hours while attempting to use their ATM cards and pawn Stacie Bagley’s wedding ring. The Bagleys reportedly pleaded with the group of friends to accept Jesus for nine hours as they drove, until Vialva got out of the car and shot them both in the head. Vialva then ordered Bernard to light the car on fire to destroy the evidence.
Beyond that story, the details of the case have been hotly debated. In Bernard’s case, the primary debate is around whether the shots Vialva fired or the fire Bernard lit is what killed the Bagleys. Bernard’s defendants argue that Vialva’s shots definitively killed Todd Bagley and likely killed Stacie Bagley as well, and that Bernard lit the car on fire thinking the both of them were already dead. His prosecutors argue that there was soot in Stacie Bagley’s airway, indicating that smoke inhalation – not the gunshot – killed her.
Also debated is whether or not Bernard and Vialva were members of a larger violent gang, as Vialva’s lawyers argued that he was not before his September execution, while Bernard’s lawyers argued that he was a low-ranking, subservient member of the gang. In fact, the five jurors who changed their stance on Bernard’s case did so because new evidence has resurfaced showing that Bernard had a particularly low-level position in the gang, evidence which Owens argued that prosecutors withheld.
Angela Moore, the former federal prosecutor involved in the case, also recently wrote that Bernard’s reformed behavior in prison indicated to her that he should not be put to death, and that she thought that racist bias had influenced his sentencing.
“I always took pride in representing the United States as a federal prosecutor, and I think executing Brandon would be a terrible stain on the nation’s honor,” she said.
Outside support for Bernard was just as strong as support from those who worked on the original case, as reality star Kim Kardashian used her platform to advocate for him alongside high-powered lawyers Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr. Dershowitz and Starr joined Bernard’s legal team just earlier this week, and submitted a request to the Supreme Court for his execution to be delayed, but the court denied. Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Cory Booker of (D-New Jersey), members of the Judiciary Committee, also issued a statement urging Trump to grant clemency.
“The death penalty in the United States is fatally flawed in its imposition and is disproportionately imposed based on race,” the statement read.
Kardashian similarly appealed to Trump to commute Bernard’s sentence, but was denied.
The Bagleys’ family, meanwhile, expressed relief that Bernard was finally receiving the penalty. They publicly agreed with conservative outsiders following the case arguing that the death penalty continues to be an appropriate sentencing, even in the case of Bernard. Georgia Bagley, mother of Todd Bagley, also made a statement saying that, though she was glad that justice had finally been carried out for her family, she was grateful for Bernard’s reform.
— Paul Miles 🎙 (@PaulMiles840) December 11, 2020
“The apology and the remorse that was shown to the family, and the fact that they regretted their acts at that time, helped very much to heal my heart and I can truly say I forgive them,” Bagely said in her tearful speech.
Bernard’s last words had been a final apology to the victims and their family.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.”
Following Bernard’s death and the suspicions of a racist and unfair trial preceding it, the death penalty as a whole has been once again called into question. Critics who argue that the practice is racist note that earlier federal executions of white men seemed to be planned around the Black Lives Matter protests to make them less controversial, while four of the five remaining inmates set to die under the Trump administration are black men. On Twitter, they compared Bernard to Dylan Roof, who was 21 years old when he was sentenced to death for a hate crime that killed nine people, and still lives.
Dylan Roof murdered 9 people who had welcomed him INTO THEIR CHURCH + after, the cops **treated** him to Burger King #BrandonBernard was 18, was not the shooter, model inmate, 5 jurors did not want death penalty – murdered by the state last night
Different justice systems? pic.twitter.com/HM5EIf5QkH
— Marie Myung-Ok 명옥 Lee (@MarieMyungOkLee) December 11, 2020
“Dylan Roof murdered 9 people who had welcomed him INTO THEIR CHURCH + after, the cops **treated** him to Burger King,” one user wrote. “#BrandonBernard was 18, was not the shooter, model inmate, 5 jurors did not want death penalty – murdered by the state last night. Different justice systems?”
Dylan Roof murdered 9 Black people at a Charleston church. He was taken to Burger King after his arrest.
Brandon Bernard was 18, didn’t know those he was with we’re going to kill a couple, didn’t pull the trigger, was convicted as ‘an accomplice.’
He was executed. pic.twitter.com/Ch09pbi6n2
— Bishop Talbert Swan (@TalbertSwan) December 11, 2020
“Dylan Roof murdered 9 Black people at a Charleston church. He was taken to Burger King after his arrest. He’s alive,” another tweeted. “Brandon Bernard was 18, didn’t know those he was with we’re going to kill a couple, didn’t pull the trigger, was convicted as ‘an accomplice.’ He was executed.”