Bernard’s case became a high-profile clemency campaign that advocates say highlights major issues within the justice system. The cases were among the last that were quickly scheduled by the Trump administration. Bernard and Bourgeois were two of four Black men scheduled to die by lethal injection during the Trump administration’s final days in the office.
Bourgeois was the 10th person to be executed since Attorney General William Barr announced in July 2019 the revival of capital punishment for federal death row inmates — a decision that has been fraught with controversy.
The Department of Justice has defended its decision.
“The Department intended to resume executions in December 2019, however due to litigation, the process was suspended,” a department spokeswoman told CNN Friday night. “Once the Supreme Court ruled in favor of resuming executions, the Department has proceeded each month — with the exception of October — since July 2020.”
Bernard was one of five gang members convicted in Texas of killing Stacie and Todd Bagley — who were youth ministers — in 1999.
Although Bernard apologized for his role in the crime before he died on Thursday night, it wasn’t until 2018, when his legal team learned that the trial prosecutor withheld information from the defense. The alleged violation was the basis of Bernard’s appeals and changed the minds of five out of the nine living jurors who sentenced him to death, according to court documents.
“A case like Brandon Bernard’s shows that our criminal legal system often prioritizes finality over fairness, even when there are deeply troubling legal issues that have never been addressed by the courts and in spite of widespread calls for clemency,” Kristin Houle Cuellar, executive director of Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told CNN on Friday.
Texas has consistently lead the country with the most executions and has conducted 570 since 1976.
Case attracted national attention
Bernard, 40, was the youngest person in the United States in nearly 70 years to be executed by the federal government for a crime committed when he was a teenager. He was also the ninth of 13 federal death row inmates Barr requested the Bureau of Prisons to schedule to die before Inauguration Day — January 20.
“Brandon’s execution is a stain on America’s criminal justice system. But I pray that even in his death, Brandon will advance his commitment to helping others by moving us closer to a time when this country does not pointlessly and maliciously kill young Black men who pose no threat to anyone,” his attorney, Robert C. Owen, said.
An 11th-hour attempt by Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr — high-powered defense attorneys who also represented Trump — to join Bernard’s legal defense, delayed the proceedings for three hours, but did not sway the Supreme Court to grant a request to delay the execution for two weeks.
There are currently 53 people on federal death row: 23 Black men, 21 White men, seven Latino men, one Asian man and one White woman, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Since 1973, there have been 172 men and women who were sentenced to death and later found to be wrongfully convicted, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Of those exonerees are 89 Black men, 63 White men, 15 Latino men, one Native American man, two other men of another race as well as one Black woman and one White woman.
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty and will give incentives to states to steer them away from seeking death sentences. While no federal death row inmate has been wrongfully convicted, Biden’s initiative against the death penalty is due in part to the amount of wrongfully convicted people who have been given the sentence, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Until Biden’s swearing in, there are three more federal death row inmates pending execution. They are two Black men, Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs, and Lisa Montgomery, who is the only woman scheduled to be executed by the US government in nearly 70 years.
With Bourgeois’ execution, Trump is now tied with President Ulysses S. Grant (1873-1876) for the fourth most federal executions in a single year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Bourgeois, 56, was sentenced to death in 2004 for torturing and killing his 2-year-old daughter in Texas.