Today, 40-year-old Brandon Bernard is scheduled to be executed for a crime he was involved in at age 18. While Bernard was not the person who pulled the trigger on the two people murdered — that man, Christopher Vialva, was executed in September — he was eligible for capital punishment, which can only be handed down to legal adults.
Bernard has spent his entire adult life in prison; now, criminal justice advocates and others, including Kim Kardashian West, have called on the Trump administration to commute his sentence. As Sister Helen Prejean, longtime advocate against the death penalty, recently wrote for the Washington Post, to do so would be to break a trend that the Trump administration has accelerated since the November election — rapidly pushing through executions.
“Bernard would be the youngest person executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years,” Prejean wrote. But Bernard is only one of a number of cases the Trump administration has rushed through; indeed, Bernard is not even the only inmate scheduled to be executed this week: 56-year-old Alfred Bourgeois’ execution is set for Dec. 11.
The administration recently announced the scheduling of five executions between now and the Jan. 20, 2021 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden (who, despite his complicated record on criminal justice, has indicated he will stop the use of federal capital punishment). And starting Christmas Eve, thanks to a directive added to the Manner of Federal Executions rule, executions may be carried out by firing squads, poison gas, or electrocution. If the plan goes through, Trump will have executed 13 death-row inmates since July, when his administration began executions for the first time in 17 years.
Several voices of faith have called out in protest against the executions in addition to Prejean. On Monday, a group of Catholic archbishops asked the Trump administration to suspend executions for the duration of Advent. And in October, Pope Francis reiterated his stance against the death penalty and called for its abolition in an encyclical.
“The unprecedented hastiness with which the federal government has moved to execute eight people over the past six months (and five more in the coming weeks) shows, at best, a misunderstanding of the Church’s consistent life ethic — at worst, a blatant disregard for it,” said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which organizes against capital punishment, in comments provided to Sojourners over email.
“Evidence shows the U.S. death penalty system is highly fallible and riddled with biases,” Murphy continued. “We have seen time and again that it fails to accomplish its intended purposes of deterring crime and healing the families of murder victims.” Murphy pointed out that public support for capital punishment has steadily dropped; a May 2020 Gallup poll found the percentage who find it “morally acceptable” fell to a historic low this year at 54 percent.
“The recent spate of government-sponsored killings at the Trump administration’s direction reveals what is most flawed in our nation’s practice of the death penalty: No matter how terrible the crime, God-like decisions of life or death at the hands of government officials are too weighty and unwieldy for humans to handle,” Prejean concluded in her recent op-ed.
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