• The Federal Death Penalty: Trump’s Presidential Parting Gift

    The Federal Death Penalty: Trump’s Presidential Parting Gift

    Trump’s Historic December Executions

    At 9:27 pm on Thursday December 10th, 2020, Brandon Bernard was pronounced dead after receiving a lethal injection in the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Brandon’s death occurred amidst a national outcry to spare his life, an outcry that drew over half a million individual letters to the White House and thousands of phone calls. Yet the pleas of many Americans were overridden by the Trump administration’s dash to complete 5 executions over the course of a month, making him the first president in 130 years to continue with executions during the presidential transition period. 

    The widely publicized chain of events leading up to the execution, and the untimely death of Brandon Bernard has sent a wave of grief across the nation, begging the long asked question, why is the federal death penalty still in place in the United States?

    The Case of Brandon Bernard

    Brandon Bernard was one of five involved in the murder of Stacey and Tom Badgely in Killen, Texas. In November of 1999, the main aggressor, Christopher Vialva, asked the pair for a ride, before holding them at gunpoint and forcing them into the trunk of their car. After holding the couple in captivity for nine hours, Vialva shot them in the trunk of their own car. Shortly, after Bernard lit the car on fire, which was thought to cause the death of Stacey through smoke inhalation. The case, involving many horrific twists and turns, had several ambiguities on Bernard’s role at the time of the sentencing. One of the ambiguities being whether Bernard lighting the car on fire actually led to Stacey’s death, as speculation has suggested she could have died as a result of Vialva’s gunshot wound.  Such ambiguities have now led  five jurors and even the federal prosecutor to support his clemency, and, in other words, his life. The decision to execute Bernard made him one of the youngest offenders executed by the U.S. government in 70 years – putting Trump in yet another history book of cruelty. 

    There is no question that Bernard was involved in a crime that led to the brutal and wrongful murder of Stacey and Tom Badgely; their families have every right to seek closure and justice. However, the execution of a man who was 18 years-old at the time of the crime, an accomplice to the murders, and who also has spent the past 20 years reforming himself does not seem quite like justice, especially when his execution is Donald Trump’s presidential “parting gift”. In a recent statement, Bernard’s attorney Robert Owens called the execution a “stain on America’s criminal justice system.”  Such a stain is one among thousand extended by old-fashioned practices such as the federal death penalty.

    The Federal Death Penalty: Then and Now 

    Before Trump, only three federal executions had taken place in the 21st century – all of them by President George W Bush. Since Bush, and prior to Trump, there had been no federal executions, marking approximately 17 years without. This trend came to a quick end, as Attorney General William Barr proclaimed a return to federal execution, to “bring justice to victims of the most horrific crimes.” Such a proclamation led to the scheduled execution of multiple death row prisoners, many of which are being done throughout the holiday season, marking a record high annual number of executions in modern history. 

    Yet, public support for the death penalty is at its lowest ever, as national polls and studies have indicated  “A record low of Americans Now Find the Death Penalty Morally Acceptable”. Of course, opinions on the death penalty are interswined in complex principles of morality and points of view. However research has highlighted key reasons against the death penalty. One, it can be significantly more expensive than keeping one in prison for life – attributed to the high costs of trials and appeals for capital punishment sentences. Two, it is not necessarily a deterrent for crimes, which is a common rationale used to support capital punishment. A number of recent studies have shown a lack of sound evidence showing that capital punishment lowers crime rates. Three, and most importantly, many innocent people have died at the hands of the death penalty. In a recent study, it was estimated that approximately 4% of defendants sentenced to die are innocent.  

    Ultimately, the wave of grief across the nation over the death of Bernard indicates that this may only be the beginning of a long overdue dialogue about the death penalty. In the coming years, question of when state sanctioned killings will be deemed obsolete will be best answered by Joe Biden, a vocal foe of the death penalty who will be expected to put his words into action. Until then, myself, and hundreds upon thousands of others will be mourning the loss of Brandon Bernard, and so many other souls that have been both directly and indirectly killed by the system that continues in it’s unhinged cruelty.

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