The Search for Meaning in Brandon Bernard’s Death

Who was Brandon Bernard and what did he do?

Coronavirus has killed more people this week than ever before, taking more lives than Pearl Harbor in single days. It is impossible to watch the news for long before hearing a Coronavirus death count update. People sick with conditions unrelated to Coronavirus are dying because they are too afraid to enter hospitals- virus hotspots. Moreover, suicide rates in our country are higher than ever before, for many people truly cannot deal with the isolation and hopelessness of this pandemic. Not to sound too existential, but it really feels like this disease is making the concept of death much more of a tangible threat to all of us. The saddest and most enraging part of this whole tragedy to me, however, is the audacity of the federal government to do what they did a few nights ago: deliberately choose to take an additional life. I cannot and will not ever be able to wrap my head around how the government, and specifically President Trump, found it permissible to carry out a federal execution during an era already filled with so many unjust deaths. 

If you haven’t seen the headlines, allow me to catch you up on one of the saddest miscarriages of justice I have ever seen- the execution of Brandon Bernard. When Bernard was just 18 years old, he was a low-ranked member of a gang who found himself in the middle of a crime scene, not knowing what to do. Other members of the gang had carjacked, robbed, shot, and killed youth ministers Todd and Stacie Bagley. The panicked Bernard, who had not even been there for the car-jacking itself, set the car that the bodies were in on fire. Experts hired by the defense team testified that the gun shots were what killed both Bagleys, and that the fire Bernard set was thus not the cause of death. Bernard’s legal team was far from adequate though, and the jury ended up finding Bernard guilty and sentencing him to death for the murder of Stacie Bagley. However, as the case unfolded more and more after its time in court, it became clear that Bernard in no way deserved the death penalty. During his time in prison, he was a model inmate and the epitome of rehabilitation and growth. As his execution date came closer and closer, 5 out of the 9 surviving jurors came forward and expressed that if they knew back then what they know now, they would not have recommended a death sentence. Moreover, the federal prosecutor on his case wrote of having a similar belief in an op-ed, claiming “I think executing Brandon would be a terrible stain on the nation’s honor.” The justification for a lesser sentence does not take a law degree to understand. Bernard’s actions did not kill Todd or Stacie Bagley. Bernard did not plan to light the car on fire before doing so, and as an 18-year-old with a developing brain, Bernard was not capable of making logical decisions during such a high-intensity situation. Does he deserve to be punished? Of course. Lighting a car on fire is not morally permissible. However, the death penalty is meant to kill the worst of the worst, and Bernard is just not that. Though I personally don’t support capital punishment in any situation, I feel that even the biggest believers in the death penalty can agree that this is not the kind of criminal who deserves to be executed. If Chris Watts, an adult male who fairly premeditatively murdered his wife, his unborn child, and his two beautiful toddler daughters, can get away with a mere life sentence even after lying throughout most of the investigative process, then how can a teenager who did not even murder the victim get a death sentence? I don’t think I usually have the right to judge whose life is worthy of being taken and whose isn’t, but then again, the severity of the punishments in these two cases simply does not make sense when compared together. Is it because Watts was white and Bernard was black? I can’t say for certain, but you are absolutely blind if you don’t think that race was a factor in Bernard’s sentence. 

After the recent murders of George Floyd and countless other innocent black people, you would think that the federal government would pay more attention to a case like this. I truly had hope that the recent increase in vigor of the Black Lives Matter movement would contribute to a sentence reduction in Bernard’s case. I thought that no matter what their political beliefs are, the Supreme Court justices would make that last minute ruling to give him a stay of execution. While the horrifying murder of George Floyd was awful, tragic, and unjust in every way imaginable, it was not premeditated. It was made by one person, not a collective government. The fact that the murder of Brandon Bernard, and yes, I’m calling it a murder, was premeditated by a group that is supposed to do what’s best for our nation breaks my heart in every way possible. I question how this could happen after all of the anti-racist advocacy work of this past summer, but I am left without answers.

 I want Brandon Bernard’s death to have meaning. His life surely had meaning. After all, he was a symbol of the possibilities of rehabilitation and growth. His life was a fine example of never giving up hope while still learning how to accept what you cannot control. He was a father, a son, and a friend to many. His life, though extremely challenging, was meaningful. I still cannot find the meaning in his death though. The hopeful message I have heard time and time again is that Bernard’s death can have meaning in contributing to the strength of the BLM and death penalty abolition movement. I found value and peace in this belief for a while leading up to his execution, but now that he’s gone, I don’t find as much value in it anymore. We said that Floyd’s death would serve to teach us a lesson about racism, law enforcement, and injustice. We said Arbery and Taylor’s deaths would do the same. Now we’re saying this about Bernard’s death too? Pardon my French, but this feels like such bullshit. How many more black people have to die for these lessons to be learned by those in charge of our nation and for legitimate reform to commence? I’m tired of hearing about how these people served as martyrs for the BLM movement when their martyrdom is still not leading to effective change.  It makes me furious that in 2020, even after everyone attended protests, donated to important BLM causes, and educated themselves on black history, our nation is still treating blacks as less than human. Bernard is not the last black inmate being killed by this administration- Alfred Bourgeois is scheduled to be killed later this week even though he has an intellectual disability. Dustin Higgs is scheduled to be killed in January for a crime that he did not commit. I am not saying that punishment of black men is never permissible or just. I am simply saying that more than ever before, the government needs to make it a priority to say that black lives do, in fact, matter, and to show some humanity in re-examining the sentence, in the case of Bourgeois, and the whole case itself, in the case of Higgs.

I can’t forgive Donald Trump for a lot of things. He treated Coronavirus as a joke, threatened people’s abortion rights, and made minorities everywhere feel unsafe. I can’t forgive him for those things, but his dedication to taking all the lives he can as his last act of destruction is by far the thing that angers me the most. He has made it his mission to overlook every inmate’s humanity and to hold federal executions during a global pandemic. Even when attorneys that represented Trump himself in the past chose to represent Bernard last minute, Trump still chose to not give Bernard a stay. I hope I’m proven wrong, but I doubt these next four executions will be different. 

The death penalty is an outdated practice. It doesn’t deter crime. It has an error rate of 5%, and when you’re dealing with human life, there should be absolutely no error. Executions are not painless, even if delivered via lethal injection. It’s costly and more expensive than life in prison. It is inherently racist. It perpetuates a ceaseless stream of violence and pain. I could go on and on, but before I start fully copy and pasting from my tenth grade I-search paper, I’ll pull in the reins. I know I will never be able to convince everyone that the death penalty is unjust, and I know that executions are the only ways that victim families like the Bagleys claim to find closure. I don’t want to undermine their suffering. What they went through is unimaginable, but I truly believe that taking another life only extends a cycle of killing that cannot undo the initial tragedy. Though I cannot convince the Bagleys to see it this way, it is my sincerest hope that more and more people will begin to view capital punishment through this lens. 

In the last 72 hours, I have seen more people than ever before post about abolishing the death penalty. I’ve seen the ACLU and the Equal Justice Initiative reposted all over my timeline, and though I wish that this advocacy happened earlier, and though I hope that these people are doing more than just quickly reposting something to look woke, I am remaining hopeful that something effective can come out of this kind of advocacy. I pray with everything in me that Biden successfully puts a moratorium on federal executions, and that one day soon, the death penalty will be fully abolished. We don’t need more death right now, and we need to abandon this ungodly institution in general. If you at all feel compelled to contribute to limiting unjust sentences and abolishing the death penalty once and for all, please spend five minutes signing the petitions on the Death Penalty Action’s website. Truthfully, I don’t know how effective petitions are, but they are one of the few things that anybody sitting at home can do in a few quick seconds. However, there’s so many other ways to contribute to change. You can contact governors when state executions approach. You can write to legislators and tell them why the death penalty needs to be abolished. You can vote in local elections, not just the national ones. You can donate to legal funds for these inmates- not all of them get pro bono help. The point is, there’s a lot more you can do than simply reposting something on your story. Please, don’t be passive in this. The many people robbed of justice all over the country deserve better. This is the only way to create meaning out of the deaths like those of Brandon Bernard, and that is the least we owe him.

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