UPDATE (9:47 AM EDT 12/11/20)
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — The Trump administration Thursday carried out its ninth federal execution of the year in what has been the first series of executions during a presidential lame-duck period in 130 years, putting to death a Texas street-gang member in the slayings of a religious couple from Iowa more than two decades ago.
Four more federal executions, including one Friday, are planned in the weeks before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. One was carried out in late November.
The case of Brandon Bernard, who received a lethal injection of phenobarbital at a U.S. prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, was a rare execution of a person who was in his teens when his crime was committed.
Several high-profile figures, including reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, had appealed to President Donald Trump to commute Bernard’s sentence to life in prison.
With witnesses looking on from behind a glass barrier separating them from a pale-green death chamber, the 40-year-old Bernard was pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m. Eastern time.
NOTE: The latest updates on the five scheduled executions will be added to the top of this article here.
(NBC News) — Brandon Bernard was 18 when he was arrested as an accomplice in the 1999 kidnapping and murder of two youth ministers on a secluded stretch of the Fort Hood military reservation in Texas.
On Thursday evening, Bernard, now 40, is set to become the youngest person, based on the age when the crime occurred, in nearly seven decades to be executed by the federal government.
Of the next five scheduled federal executions, four of them, including Bernard’s, involve Black men; the fifth person, Lisa Montgomery, would be the first woman to be executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years.
Already in 2020, the federal government has put eight people to death, including the only Native American on federal death row, whose execution in August was opposed by his tribe, the Navajo Nation.
Together, these cases reflect a detachment from this year’s “awakening on the racial injustice that is endemic to our criminal legal system,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center, said.
“The myth for years has been that the federal criminal justice system was more advanced and fairer than the state court systems and did not suffer from the same legacy of racism and bigotry,” Dunham said.
A Death Penalty Information Center report released in September examined the historical context of how capital punishment has been a tool for authority over Black Americans. Since executions were reintroduced in the United States in 1977, nearly 300 Black defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, while only 21 white defendants have been executed for the murder of a Black victim, the report said.
Earlier this year, while the center notes that white men made up the majority of the defendants who were executed by the federal government, the victims in those cases were also white.
“These cases illustrate that on the federal level, as well, the lives of white victims still matter more than the lives of Black victims,” Dunham said, “and the lives of defendants of color matter less than anyone else.”
The Trump administration and the Department of Justice under Attorney General William Barr ramped up executions in July after a 17-year hiatus on the federal level — a combination of the lack of priority under previous administrations, concerns over botched executions and the delays caused by extended appeals.
Barr in July said the those slated for death were among “the worst criminals.” The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
No state has carried out executions since July, when Texas did so.
Critics argue that employing death sentences during a pandemic is unsafe, particularly when it requires inmates, their families and legal representatives, and teams of federal execution specialists to travel to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where executions are held.
Following one federal execution in November, eight members of a 40-person federal execution team later tested positive for Covid-19 after returning home, according to a court declaration of a Federal Bureau of Prisons official filed this week in response to a lawsuit by two Terra Haute prisoners seeking to halt the executions.
The exact circumstances for how the team members became infected was not detailed, but five of those staffers are expected to take part in separate executions scheduled this week, including of Bernard. A Justice Department lawyer said during a federal court hearing Tuesday that “it is difficult to even make the assumptions they contracted it during the execution” in November, and that protocols for upcoming executions are adequate.
But the number of infected could potentially be higher since the testing of members of the execution team is not mandatory, Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, said.
“These executions were wrong for a whole host of reasons related to the quality of counsel, how many of these prisoners had intellectual disabilities or evidence on a racial basis,” she said. “So what’s truly breathtaking is how the government has inflicted so much illness and allowing the risk of death to carry out these executions now when they don’t have to.”
The initial execution date for Montgomery, who was convicted in 2007 of strangling a Missouri woman who was eight months pregnant and taking her unborn baby, was moved from December to Jan. 12 after her attorneys caught Covid-19 and couldn’t prepare her clemency application.
The last of the upcoming five executions is scheduled for Jan. 15, five days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who campaigned on passing legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level. Instead, his aides say, he supports death row inmates serving life sentences without probation or parole.
Barr told The Associated Press he’s likely to schedule more executions before he leaves the Justice Department. The Justice Department last month amended its execution protocols, paving the way for other methods, such as firing squads and poison gas, in addition to lethal injection. The rule goes into effect Dec. 24.
Dunham said the way the Trump administration is moving ahead with its “federal execution spree” during a lame-duck period has no parallel.
“The sheer appetite for killing prisoners is unprecedented in modern American presidential history,” he added.
Angela Moore, a former federal prosecutor for the Western District of Texas, was standing in her bathroom in September getting ready for work when a news report on the radio caught her off guard: The federal government had executed Christopher Vialva, a Black man and the accused ringleader in the Texas murder that involved Bernard as an accomplice.
Moore was the prosecutor who had argued against Bernard’s appeal of his death verdict. She had thought about him over the years, she said, assuming he would spend the rest of his life on death row since the U.S. had not executed anyone for nearly two decades. But hearing that Vialva was killed meant that Bernard would face the same fate.
Her name had been on death warrants for cases such as Bernard’s that ultimately left her questioning whether capital punishment was an effective deterrent against crime.
In these cases, she said, prosecutors seek convictions, in part, to make names for themselves and get promoted, as she had sought; young Black males are often cast to juries as being “dangerous,” and not viewed with humanity; and juries are left to trust that the criminal justice system and courts are foolproof enough to catch flaws in the prosecution or defense.
“I no longer support the death penalty,” Moore, who is white and now in private practice, said. “I felt like I needed to step up and take responsibility. I saw this man did not deserve to die.”
She’s now speaking out against Bernard’s execution, writing an op-ed in The Indianapolis Star in November that although Bernard was an adult in 1999, he “lacked an adult’s capacity to control his impulses, consider alternative courses of action or anticipate the consequences of his behavior.” Emerging scientific studies indicate that teenagers’ brains are still developing and maturing through their mid-20s.
A jury of 11 white people and one Black person found Bernard and Vialva guilty in the deaths of Todd and Stacie Bagley, married youth pastors who were white. Vialva was 19 at the time. Three others involved in the couple’s deaths were not legal adults and ineligible for the death penalty, but pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison.
Prosecutors said the group devised a plan to intimidate and rob a victim with a gun, and they had come across the Bagleys, according to documents. Vialva was identified as the leader and gunman who fatally shot the couple in their heads. Bernard was accused of buying the lighter fluid and setting the couple’s car on fire with them in it, although the other members of the group testified they hadn’t seen him do it.
One of the jurors in Bernard’s case, Gary McClung Jr., wrote this week for the progressive-leaning American Constitution Society that he now regrets agreeing to the death penalty for him.
“At the time of the trial, I felt that Mr. Bernard was a follower, pressured by his friends into participating in the situation that led to the murders,” McClung said. “I did not think he would have participated if he knew the victims would be killed, and I did not think he would have taken any action to personally kill anyone.”
Bernard’s attorney, Rob Owen, said four other jurors have also come forward to attest that they no longer support the death penalty in the case. In addition, Owen said the federal government hid certain evidence in the case that could have changed the outcome of Bernard’s sentencing.
“Brandon must not be executed until the courts have fully addressed the constitutionality of his sentence,” Owen said in a statement Tuesday.
A federal judge in Waco last week denied a motion to pause the execution after federal prosecutors argued that the defense’s 11th-hour claims were previously rebuffed in court.
Family for the Bagleys could not immediately be reached for comment. Todd Bagley’s mother previously released a statement after Vialva’s execution expressing gratitude that justice was served for her son and his wife.
“The story was focused on Vialva’s life and the changes that he has made,” Georgia Bagley said. “This is not about him and his changed life, but about the victims in this case … Please remember the victims and their families whose lives have been shattered and are still trying to cope.”
Reality television personality Kim Kardashian West, who has championed criminal justice cases by soliciting the help of President Donald Trump, tweeted her support of a campaign asking him to stop Bernard’s execution.
Moore said she understands that victims and their loved ones are owed a right to retribution and closure for horrific crimes. But society as a whole, she added, shouldn’t lose sight that Bernard has long expressed remorse and turned his life around behind bars as a model prisoner who helps at-risk youth.
“He used his time in prison to serve his community and somehow changed as a human being, knowing he’d be executed and that none of these good deeds would make a difference for him,” Moore said.
“We have a blood lust in this country,” she added, “and I don’t know where it’s coming from.”
Biden Expected To Repeal Military Trans Ban Tomorrow
The Biden administration is expected to repeal the ban on transgender Americans from serving in the military, multiple people informed of the decision told CBS News. The announcement is expected as soon as Monday, one senior Defense official and four outside advocates of repealing the ban told CBS News.
The senior Defense official told CBS News the repeal will be through executive order signed by President Joe Biden. The announcement is expected to take place at a ceremony with newly-confirmed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who will order the Pentagon to go back to the policy enacted in 2016 by former Defense Secretary Ash Carter that allowed transgender Americans to serve openly.
The White House did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
The new order will direct the branches of the military to outline an implementation plan.
The ban was announced by former President Trump via a tweet in July 2017. The ban took effect in April 2019 and barred transgender Americans from enlisting in the military.
In 2014, it was estimated there were around 15,500 transgender military members serving, according to a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
Biden frequently repeated on the campaign trail his promise to repeal the ban.
Austin said at his Senate confirmation hearing last week that he planned to repeal the ban.
“I support the president’s plan or plan to overturn the ban,” Austin said on Tuesday when asked by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, “I truly believe, Senator, that as I said in my opening statement, that if you’re fit and you’re qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve. And, you can expect that I will support that throughout.”
Trump Pardons Steve Bannon In One of His Final Acts As 45th President
(CNN)— President Donald Trump has decided to pardon his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, in a last-minute decision made only hours before he is scheduled to depart the White House for a final time.
Officials cautioned CNN that Trump’s decision was not final until he signed the paperwork. Trump told people that after much deliberation, he had decided to pardon Bannon as one of his final acts in office.
Bannon’s pardon would follow a frantic scramble during the President’s final hours in office as attorneys and top aides debated his inclusion on Trump’s outgoing clemency list. Despite their falling out in recent years, Trump was eager to pardon his former aide after recently reconnecting with him as he helped fan Trump’s conspiracy theories about the election.
It was a far cry from when Trump exiled Bannon from his inner circle after he was quoted in a book trashing the President’s children, claiming that Donald Trump Jr. had been “treasonous” by meeting with a Russian attorney and labeling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.” Those statements from Bannon drove Trump to issue a lengthy statement saying he had “lost his mind.”
“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” Trump said at the time.Things shifted in recent months as Bannon attempted to breach Trump’s inner circle once again by offering advice before the election and pushing his false theories after Trump had lost.
Since Trump’s election defeat, the President has leaned further into his expansive pardon powers — granting pardons to his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, longtime ally Roger Stone and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, among others.
Among Trump’s pardons earlier in his term were those for former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza and financier Michael Milken.
California Governor Formally Appoints Alex Padilla To Fill US Senate Seat Vacated By Kamala Harris
(CNN) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom formally submitted the appointment of Alex Padilla to the US Senate today, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
Padilla formally resigned as Secretary of State this morning and Gov. Newsom also submitted his nomination letter for Assembly member Shirley Weber to replace him. The Deputy Secretary of State, James Schwab, will be the Acting Secretary of State.
“It is fitting that on the same day we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — a civil rights icon who fought for justice and representation — we also move forward the appointment of California’s first Latino U.S. Senator Alex Padilla and the nomination of Dr. Shirley Weber who will serve as the first-ever African American Secretary of State. Both will be strong defenders of our democracy during this fragile moment in our nation’s history,” said Gov. Newsom.
“I am humbled and honored by your trust in me to represent California in the United States Senate. I look forward to continuing to serve the great State of California as a United States Senator and to ensuring that the rights and democratic principles we cherish are protected and preserved for all people,” Padilla wrote in a letter to Gov. Newsom.
Some context: Earlier today, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris formally resigned her seat as one of California’s US Senators. She’ll be inaugurated as vice president on Wednesday, Jan. 20. In a farewell addressed posted to Twitter, Harris said, “Of course, I’m not saying goodbye. In many ways, I’m now saying hello as your vice president.”
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