2020 is a year that will go down in the history books for many reasons, but it is currently on track to have the most federal executions in modern U.S. history. From 1950 to 2019, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported ten federal executions, which happens to be the same amount that’s been carried out this year alone. The death penalty is widely debated not just in the country, but around the world, so the Trump administration’s decision to resume federal executions during the pandemic has brought the controversial issue back into the spotlight.
Since 1976, there have been 11 executions by the federal government. Ten of those deaths took place under the Trump administration and there are 4 more scheduled until President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20. This also goes against precedent as BBC reports that there’s only been three times in history when federal executions have taken place during the lame-duck period.
One case that gained national attention over the past few months was Brandon Bernard. At the age of 18, Bernard was part of a group that killed two youth ministers. One of the teens in the group shot the two victims, while Bernard set the car they were in on fire. The former federal prosecutor involved in Bernard’s case, Angela Moore, recently wrote about the racial bias that was involved in his sentencing and how his brain was not fully developed when he committed the crime.
Additionally, five of the nine jurors said they did not agree with the sentence he was given considering there was new information found recently. In the week leading up to his execution, more people and celebrities like Kim Kardashian shared his case on social media along with action items such as signing petitions, calling the White House and Justice Department and posting information to spread awareness. Although his case was appealed, the Supreme Court rejected it and Brandon Bernard was pronounced dead at 9:27 pm on Thursday, December 10.
Senior Meghna Harinath, the Treasurer for the Amnesty chapter at SBHS, spoke about how she felt when she heard the news.
“I was checking Twitter constantly and I thought that when the execution was stalled, his exoneration was not too far out of reach. When I learned that he had been put to death, my heart absolutely shattered. It broke me to know how hard he tried to teach other young people to avoid such a mistake. How he loved to play guitar. How he had children. The small things about him made it painful to think about.”
Due to the Black Lives Mattter movement gaining momentum earlier in the year, Brandon Bernard’s case also raised awareness of the racial bias related to death penalty sentences.
A report in 1990 by the General Accounting Office found, “In 82% of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.”
Not only does the race of the victim play a role in who is sentenced the death penalty, but the race of the defendent is also involved. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, in Washington, “jurors are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case”.
Harinath said, “With Biden taking office, I definitely feel like change is all the more possible. Though I realize that this change may only be gradual, I am undoubtedly comforted by the hope in other individuals who believe that they can effectively advocate for prison reform and the abolishment of the death penalty.”