Roar writer Kenza Essalama on recently executed US prisoner Brandon Bernard and the greater moral issue posed by death row.
Brandon Bernard – father, son, brother, friend, crochet master, youth worker, classical music lover… and for the past 20 years, a death row prisoner. Tragically, Brandon was executed by the US government on 10 December, 2020, despite a desperate 11th-hour appeal to reconsider his case. I see this as a fatal flaw of the US justice system.
In 1999, at the age of 18, Brandon Bernard was convicted for the murder of Todd and Stacie Bagley, a young pastor couple. Brandon was involved in a group carjacking and robbery which took a sinister turn when the ringleader of the crime, Christopher Vialva, shot the Bagleys in their car. With the gun still in his hand, Christopher directed Brandon to set the car on fire to dispose of the evidence. Brandon did as he was told.
Brandon was actually absent from the majority of the events leading to the murder – he had been at a nearby video game arcade when the carjacking began. He did not shoot anybody and he believed that the Bagleys were already dead when he set the car on fire, as he had heard the two gunshots.
This article is in no way claiming that Brandon was entirely innocent. Yes, he was complicit in a terrible, terrible crime which should never have happened. But was the death penalty an appropriate punishment for his involvement? Absolutely not.
18 years old. That just about meets the legal requirement to be eligible for the death penalty in the US. Had Brandon been just a year younger, I wouldn’t be writing this today. Had he been able to afford better defence attorneys, I wouldn’t be writing this today. Had the US justice system re-evaluated his case, I wouldn’t be writing this today.
The point of the penal system is to rehabilitate. Brandon Bernard did just that. He constantly showed remorse for his crime. He took on a great deal of youth work to try and prevent young people from getting caught up with the wrong crowd and making mistakes like his. Because that is ultimately what happened.
Brandon had an incredibly difficult and traumatic childhood which made him vulnerable to the influence of others, and it resulted in him being the youngest offender, at the age of just 40, to be put to death by the government. What is the point of the prison system if it ignores progress and reform? Without this consideration, the death penalty becomes sadistic. Brandon’s execution does not change or rectify the past, but it will change his family’s future in a permanent and unimaginable way.
Despite most surviving members of Brandon’s jury, now knowing all the facts of the case, believing life imprisonment without the possibility of parole to be enough of a punishment – along with a last-minute direct appeal from the general public led by Kim Kardashian-West and Brandon’s defence team – President Trump did not deign to use his power to grant clemency. It is also deeply sobering to recognise that as a Black man, Brandon was immediately a victim of the system. BIPOC represent almost 60% of people on death row, compared to less than 24% of the general American population.
Whether the death penalty is ever a legitimate punishment is another debate, although I think my position is clear. However, it will never be acceptable to execute a person who committed a crime when they were a teenager and who has consistently demonstrated remorse and growth. My deepest condolences go out to Brandon’s family and friends, and we can only hope and continue to strive for a time where tragedies like this no longer happen.