Federal appeals court denies emergency request to halt Brandon Bernard execution


A federal appeals court Thursday denied an last-minute emergency request to halt the execution of Brandon Bernard, clearing the way for the ninth inmate death sentence carried out this year by the Trump administration.

In a brief, one-page order, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the request without explanation.

Bernard, 40, was scheduled to die late Thursday night by lethal injection at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was sentenced to death for the 1999 murders of married youth ministers Todd and Stacie Bagley in Killeen, Texas.

Bernard‘s case attracted attention from Democratic lawmakers and celebrity activists, who pleaded with President Trump to commute his sentence to life in prison because of newly discovered evidence.

Since the Trump administration resumed federal executions after a 17-year hiatus, Democrats have largely been mum about the eight federal inmates put to death so far. But they say Bernard‘s case is different because newly uncovered evidence raises questions about his role in the murders.

In a joint statement, Democratic Sens. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois called on the president to commute Bernard‘s sentence.

“Since he was sentenced to death, new evidence has come to light and a number of deficiencies in his initial defense have been exposed,” they said. “Mr. Bernard‘s post-conviction attorneys have continued to seek legal relief in the courts and Mr. Bernard should be allowed to keep pursuing available legal avenues to challenge his death sentence.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts Democrat, flanked by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and noted death-penalty activist, urged supporters to petition the White House to stop Bernard‘s execution.

“We need to fight for Brandon like he is our own son,” Ms. Pressley said in a media appearance with The Appeal. “We need to fight for him like he is a member of our family because he is. We are all one human family.”

“Murdering Brandon will only further the cycles of trauma and harm,” she continued.

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones advocating for Bernard. Kim Kardashian West also issued a public plea aimed at Mr. Trump to commute the sentence.

Brandon Bernard, a 40-year-old father is going to be executed tomorrow by our federal government. Having gotten to know Brandon, I am heartbroken about this execution. I’m calling on @realDonaldTrump to grant Brandon a commutation and allow him to live out his sentence in prison,” she tweeted.

At the time of the crime, Bernard was part of a gang that carjacked and killed the Bagleys. Although Bernard was not involved in the carjacking, he participated in burning the vehicle while the Bagleys remained inside it.

Mr. Bagley’s death came as a result of gunshot wounds, but Mrs. Bagley died of smoke inhalation while unconscious from the gunshot wound, according to autopsies.

Bernard and his three accomplices were convicted, but two have been released. A third, Christopher Vialva, was executed earlier this year.

Bernard‘s lawyers last month uncovered new evidence they say prosecutors withheld during his 2000 trial. The evidence is the testimony of an expert witness who planned to say Bernard was a low-level member of the gang and did not participate in the carjacking.

A federal judge this week denied a request from Bernard‘s attorneys to halt his execution, ruling that the expert witness was not compelling enough to change the verdict or sentence.

On Thursday, his attorneys had asked the 7th Circuit to overturn that decision. The appeal raised similar claims presented to the U.S. District Court, arguing that the newly discovered evidence is strong enough to warrant commuting Bernard‘s sentence.

Defense attorneys said the evidence shows that Bernard “was neither a leader in the group nor the ‘worst of the worst,’ as the jury needed to conclude before imposing a death sentence.”

“Any prosecutor worth his or her salt” would recognize that this information had to be disclosed to the defense, attorneys wrote in the filing.

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