• Nishta Nandakumar

Brandon Bernard & the Death Penalty

Brandon Bernard’s execution has shocked many. Despite last minute requests to save him pouring in from citizens like us, the Supreme Court allowed Bernard’s execution, which took place on December 10th. His execution sparked considerable protest among Americans, many of whom demand that the death penalty be suspended and declared unconstitutional.

In 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled (5-4) that the death penalty was unconstitutional under the current capital punishments (i.e. electrocution, lethal gas), due to the clause in the Eighth Amendment that protects American citizens from “cruel and unusual punishments.”



However, in the 1976 case Gregg v. Georgia, the court ruled that the death penalty could be reinstated through other methods of execution. So, in 1977, Oklahoma started using lethal injection for its executions, the method that is now the most used due to its inexpensive nature and (at least theoretical) humaneness.


In the 2005 case Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment for minors was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. However, as the cries against the death penalty started increasing, the Supreme Court ruled in the 2008 case Baze v. Rees that lethal injection was, in fact, constitutional. In July 2019, after almost two decades of no federal capital punishment, former Attorney General William Barr reinstated it. In the last year and-a- half, the Trump administration has carried out around ten federal executions. Three more executions will be carried out in January 2021, just days before President-Elect Joe Biden is sworn in.


Although the high court has upheld it, the death penalty has been denounced many times by the American public and politicians. President-elect Biden is planning on discontinuing the death sentence in federal cases, and many Americans have been pushing him to pass this legislation on his first day. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Representative Ilhan Omar, and Senator Bernie Sanders have joined many others who have spoken out against the death penalty in the wake of Brandon Bernard’s execution.


Just because a person has blood on his or her hands does not mean we, as a country, should have their blood on our hands. It’s so intensely inhumane-- if we’re fighting murder with more murder, how are we putting any more good into the world? Moreover, the twisted reason of the death penalty serving as a deterrent simply hasn’t worked. According to The Death Penalty Information Center, “the murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in states with the death penalty, and the gap has grown since 1990.”


In addition, even though there is absolutely no room for error with capital punishment, there have been hundreds of wrongful convictions. Since 1973, around 170 people who were on death row were removed due to newly-discovered evidence. Sources estimate that around 50 or so more were wrongfully executed.


Furthermore, it’s no secret that the justice system is hardly immune to racism. We’ve seen this pattern of discrimination against blacks in the justice system since the Reconstruction Era, the brief post-Civil War period where African-Americans were finally beginning to be seen as fully human to today, when cases such as that of Eric Garner remind us prejudice persists.


According to the American Civil Liberties Union, since “October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims.” The last five people who have been executed by the federal government, the most recent being Alfred Bourgeois and Brandon Bernard, have all been black. Two of the three people scheduled to be killed this January are also black men.


I had the opportunity to watch a moving video that Christopher Vialva, one of the five gang members involved in the 1999 murder of Todd and Stacie Bagley, released to the American public a few days prior to his execution. He expresses deep regret for his role in their murder, saying that there is not one day that passes that he doesn't think of the Bagleys. He tells his audience that like him, all of the men are deeply regretful of their choices and have been immensely changed.


He also reiterates the fact that though they all made bad mistakes, making bad mistakes is a universally human trait. He also says that “people are unaware of the fact that many of us were arrested before we were old enough to drink. I was nineteen years old. People decided, though, that despite having our whole adult lives ahead of us, that we were beyond redemption.” His words rang through me.


As I mentioned previously, there are three more people in line to be executed in mid-January, days before President Trump’s time in the White House ends. On January 12, Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on death row post-Gregg v. Georgia, is scheduled to be executed. On January 14, Cory Johnson will be executed. On January 15, Dustin Higgs will be executed. Three executions will occur within three days of each other and five days before President-Elect Biden is sworn in.


We weren’t able to save Brandon Bernard. But we can try to save Montgomery, Johnson, and Higgs. To see various actions you can take to abolish the death penalty, visit https://www.ncadp.org/action. To save future death row inmates, sign all the petitions you can, and call the White House comments line at 202-456-1111, or email them through https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/, appealing to President Trump to save their lives.

Taking the life of someone who took the life of someone else does not right a wrong but, rather, continues a practice that does little to deter crime and leaves open the possibility of taking other redeemable or even innocent lives.