Over the summer, Keeping Up With the Kardashians star Kim Kardashian opened up on David Letterman‘s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction about her new life plans. Kardashian has been working hard in pursuit of a career change: she wants to be a lawyer. This is unsurprising given how active she’s been in trying to appeal death row sentences of inmates over the past few years. Now, Kardashian was at the center of a heart-breaking execution that was carried out under unusual circumstances. The KUWTK star broke down in tears as she spoke to inmate Brandon Bernard in some of his last moments.
Brandon Bernard’s Crime
In 1999, When Bernard was 18 years old, he was convicted, along with four others, of the carjacking and murders of Todd and Stacie Bagley. Bernard and ringleader of the crime Christopher Vialva were the only two involved who were over 18; they were 18 and 19 years old respectively. Four other young men, under the age of 18, were involved in the crime and not sentenced to the death penalty because their age made them ineligible. Vialva was executed in September.
Per the New York Times, “Mr. Bagley agreed to give a ride to the young men who approached him, according to testimony in the case. Three men got in the car, but after one of the three gave Mr. Bagley directions, they pulled two guns on the Bagleys, robbed them and forced them into the trunk. At this point, Mr. Bernard had separated from the group.
The purported ringleader of the crime, Mr. Vialva, then 19, insisted that the young men needed to kill the Bagleys. After Mr. Bernard and another accomplice bought lighter fluid, four of the young men, driving in two cars, took the victims to a remote spot on the Fort Hood military reservation.
Mr. Bernard and Terry Brown, then 17, poured lighter fluid on the car’s interior, and Mr. Vialva shot the victims with Mr. Bernard’s gun, killing Mr. Bagley and leaving Ms. Bagley unconscious, the Justice Department said. Mr. Bernard set flame to the car.”
Brandon Bernard’s Sentence
Bernard’s case has been rife with irregularities from the beginning. Lawyers for his case in 1999 argued that 18 was an arbitrary number to set the death penalty at; at 17 years and 11 months, you’re too young to be executed – but at 18 year and one day, you’re mature enough to be held responsible?
Furthermore, there is evidence that the prosecution withheld evidence that may have changed Bernard’s conviction and sentencing. The Supreme Court saw the case in an attempt to plea for a stay of execution, but the conservative-majority body declined to do so. Three liberal judges indicated that they would have granted the stay, and “in her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that if the prosecution had not withheld the evidence and knowingly elicited false testimony as Mr. Bernard claimed, there is reasonable probability that he would not have been sentenced to death. She also contended that an appeals court that denied Mr. Bernard’s motion in a case related to the testimony ‘got it wrong,’ and required too strict a standard that ‘perversely rewards the government for keeping exculpatory information secret.’
‘Bernard has never had the opportunity to test the merits of those claims in court,’ she wrote. ‘Now he never will.’”
Hundreds of thousands of letters were sent to outgoing President Donald J Trump begging for clemency, which he ignored. Trump’s lawyers and well-known impeachment players Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr even joined Bernard’s legal team, pleading for clemency. Kardashian, who has had success lobbying the president in the past for clemency, added her voice to the call for mercy. The pleas fell on deaf ears and Trump refused to grant clemency, setting the execution up to proceed as planned.
An Unusual Execution
Aside from the fact that it’s unusual to execute someone for crimes they committed as a teenager, Bernard’s execution is singular in another way. His execution is the ninth federal execution to proceed this year alone – and the first lame-duck execution to proceed in over 130 years. Usually, presidents hand out clemency freely during the lame-duck session between the election and the inauguration of a new president.
Prior to July when Trump ordered federal executions to resume, there had been a 17-year hiatus of federal executions. The number of executions so far this year – 9, expected to be 12 – exceeds the total number administered in the past 56 years, combined.
President-elect Joe Biden has promised to seek the end of federal executions.
Kardashian Breaks Down in Tears
When it became obvious, in the final hours, that Bernard would not receive clemency, Kardashian spoke with him on the phone. Kardashian says that Bernard had reformed over the past 21 years; growing from a troubled child involved with a gang into a thoughtful, kind, and selfless man whose first concern was for his family.
Bernard was a father, and Kardashian spoke of his care for his family in his final hours. As the execution time approached, Kardashian counted down on social media, trying to bring awareness to the unjust execution, as she saw it. Kardashian has repeated the defense’s claim that Bernard was the getaway driver, and that his low status in the gang he was involved with absolves him of some culpability; he was not present when the couple was abducted.
However, eventually it became glaringly obvious that no reprieve was coming. Kardashian tweeted about their phone conversation, “When he told me he’s claustrophobic and they offered to give him a shot of Sedative to calm him down before they put him in the chair and he just didn’t want to panic, I literally lost it. I had to mute my phone so he wouldn’t hear me cry like that.”
The aspiring lawyer also shared, “Just spoke to Brandon for what will likely be the last time. Hardest call I’ve ever had. Brandon, selfless as always, was focused on his family and making sure they are ok. He told me not to cry because our fight isn’t over.”
When word reached Kardashian that the execution was being carried out, she found out that Bernard was leaving her with one last message; “As he was in the chair his attorney called me and they just had their last call and said this… Brandon said he loves you and wants to say thank you again. He said he doesn’t feel too claustrophobic in the chair.”
Kardashian then tweeted, “I’m so messed up right now. They killed Brandon. He was such a reformed person. So hopeful and positive until the end. More importantly he is sorry, so sorry for the hurt and pain he has caused others.”
The Case for Ending Public Executions
The idea of ending executions is not a new one. Advocates argue that execution doesn’t undo the damage of the crime committed, it just causes pain for another family. Opponents of ending execution argue that justice involves like-for-like, and that families who have suffered great loss deserve to see the person punished adequately for their crime. They argue that it’s a deterrent to crime, while advocates of ending executions argue that people often escalate crimes because, once they’ve reached a level of criminality that makes them eligible for the death sentence, they have nothing left to lose.
With Biden aiming to end federal executions, advocates could soon see their arguments put to practice. However, many states still practice execution. With aspiring-lawyer Kardashian and other big names drawing attention to the justice system, a national conversation has sprung up around the ethics of executions. There is also serious and valid concern that racial bias is at the root of a lot of death row sentences, and DNA has exonerated more than a few 11th-hour inmates. The 17-year stay prior to July was intended to give the court system a chance to do better; to make sure appeals were given adequate time and biases were examined. However, with Trump re-igniting the system, any act by Biden to end executions comes too late for Bernard. Bernard, who by all accounts deserved to be in prison but had grown into a gentle and giving man, the exact reform the prison system claims is impossible.