Brandon read his speech to the Pardon Office to me before presenting it, and the profound level of remorse he expressed brought me to tears. He was a different person from the teenager arrested over 20 years earlier. Up until the end, he did not think he would be executed because he knew he had reformed.
I began writing to death row prisoners after reading Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy” about an innocent man condemned to death row. Books often change my course; I read a book on factory farming a few years ago and haven’t eaten meat since. After reading “Just Mercy,” I sent out postcards to about a dozen death row inmates across the U.S. When I started what my husband, family and friends universally consider an odd hobby, I had no idea how gratifying and life-altering writing death row prisoners would become.
When we first began exchanging letters a year ago, I warned Brandon that I had one other pen pal at Terre Haute federal penitentiary. In my experience, inmates do not want to write someone with multiple pen pals at the same facility out of legitimate concerns over privacy and safety. Brandon’s immediate response was, “Well, then that makes me one of the two luckiest men at Terre Haute.” To call himself lucky after over two decades of solitary confinement 23 hours a day in a six-by-eight-foot cell was the first of many lessons in gratitude Brandon taught me.
Brandon was 18 when he took part in a robbery gone wrong. He had no prior history of violence. Brandon’s friends carjacked a white couple, Todd and Stacey Bagley, youth ministers innocently offering a ride to kids purportedly in need. Later, Brandon rejoined the group only to see Christopher Vialva, the ringleader of the crime, fatally shoot Todd and Stacey in the head at close range. The man who had just shot two people in the head and still had a gun in his hand then ordered Brandon and three other teens to set the car on fire with the couple’s bodies inside. Brandon did as he was told.
At trial, Brandon’s court-appointed lawyer made no opening statement, meaning he offered the jury no alternative perspective on the charges. Brandon was the only accomplice not given an opportunity to plead guilty. The other accomplices pleaded out and received prison sentences; two are home with their families now.
Five of the nine surviving jurors later did a public about-face, stating that they would not have voted for the death penalty had prosecutors disclosed all facts at trial and had Brandon’s own lawyer competently defended him.
Brandon was falsely portrayed as a hardened high-level gang member. Prosecutors suppressed evidence by their own gang expert that the gang had a 13-tier hierarchy with Brandon at the very bottom. Brandon never got the chance to clarify his case in court — it remained the story poorly told at trial two decades earlier. Five of the nine surviving jurors later did a public about-face, stating that they would not have voted for the death penalty had prosecutors disclosed all facts at trial and had Brandon’s own lawyer competently defended him.
In her dissent written hours before Brandon’s execution, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the execution was taking place “despite troubling allegations that the Government secured his death sentence by withholding exculpatory evidence and knowingly eliciting false testimony against him. [He] has never had the opportunity to test the merits of those claims in court. Now he never will.” At 40, Brandon was the youngest person executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years.
Brandon loved his life, even in its limited capacity on death row. He did not have a single disciplinary infraction in his decades behind bars. This is no small feat given that death row is like a prison within a prison, with countless oppressive rules and ensuing frustrations.
Brandon mainly spent his time mentoring at-risk youth, reading, crocheting and playing the guitar. Brandon was calmer and more patient than most people I’ve come across; he spoke slowly and thoughtfully and was an avid listener. He never cursed and when I asked if that was for religious reasons, he said, “No, cursing just feels too aggressive to me.”
A few days before his execution, Brandon’s family visited him for the last time. After the visit, Brandon told me there was a hole in the pane of glass. I naively said, “Oh, so you were able to hold hands.” He explained it was an air hole to speak through, not large enough for hands, “But,” he said, “I could smell my mom.” In 20 years, including in his final days, Brandon was never allowed to physically touch a loved one. Never having physical contact is an inhumane daily assault on the soul.
Brandon’s case fits the death row profile: His crime and trial took place in Texas, a state that has executed one-third of the national total. Brandon’s jury consisted of 11 white jurors. Brandon was Black — despite being 13% of the U.S. population, Blacks constitute 42% of death row inmates. The victims are white in approximately 80% of homicide death penalty cases. A recent Death Penalty Information Center study found that in executions involving interracial murders since 1976, 295 Black defendants were executed for killing white victims, while only 21 white defendants were executed for killing Black victims. Death row is riddled with racial bias and is disproportionately home to Black men who have committed an alleged crime against a white person. Fairness cannot be achieved. Executions in our country, whether with rope or needle, have always been about race.
President Joe Biden has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty and to give incentives for states to do the same. There is a simple alternative to government executions: Keep people behind bars without resorting to killing them. Two-thirds of countries worldwide have abolished the death penalty. Italy abolished the death penalty in 1948; England in 1969. In the Netherlands, the last execution took place in 1952; Australia in 1967. Since ending the death penalty in 1976, Canada’s murder rate has steadily declined. The U.S. is the only Western democracy to conduct executions. Even Russia stopped executions in 1996. Our country keeps dubious company with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan. We are very late in ending state-sponsored executions. It can be done; last month Virginia became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty. Brandon, with his typical positivity, would say now is the time.
Brandon’s final words were his deep regret to the victims’ families, his love for his own family and, true to his thoughtful nature, he told the prison guards not to let his execution upset them.
Friends sitting on death row for years have taught me many lessons: patience, keeping the conversation real and meaningful, and appreciating what I have. The hassle of driving my daughter to school is now about holding her hand at stoplights and rolling the windows down so I can feel the air. The freedom.
I’ve learned that pure good and evil rarely exist in reality and that I can do better than unequivocal righteousness. But, mainly I’ve discovered that love is such a fundamental need of all people that it can create a bond between a “suburban white girl,” as one San Quentin friend calls me, and a former LA gang member who has forsaken the drugs and crime of his youth. I’ve also come to understand that people can profoundly change with time.
During our daily talks, I never had anything to offer Brandon other than my love and support. He never asked me for a single thing besides friendship. Brandon was religious, but since I’m not, I couldn’t offer him prayers or talk about how heaven is a better place. I could only helplessly listen and tell him that I love him.
Brandon’s final words were his deep regret to the victims’ families, his love for his own family and, true to his thoughtful nature, he told the prison guards not to let his execution upset them. Our final words to each other were about what he would visualize on the gurney to stay calm. I told him to imagine my arms holding him down instead of straps and he promised he would. I was crying and told him I was sorry I couldn’t save him. He said I saved him with my love. And we said goodbye.
Jennifer Wasserstein is an immigration lawyer and lives in Italy with her husband and daughter.
The seven federal executions carried out since July have come as Mr. Trump has campaigned for a second term by casting himself as a defender of “law and order” against Democrats, whom he accuses of giving license to violent anarchists and criminals.
Mr. Trump has long been an enthusiastic supporter of the death penalty. In 1989, he placed full-page advertisers.com.ngs in four New York City newspapers, including The New York Times, calling for New York State to adopt the death penalty in response to the case of the Central Park Five, the five Black and Latino teenagers wrongly convicted of the rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park.
He was born in 1980 in San Antonio, Texas at the same hospital where his mother Thelma Bernard worked as an Army nurse. He has a sister named Quiona Bernard and a brother named Max Bernard, who were born in December 1987 and in 1991, respectively.
The Army transferred his mother to Fairbanks, Alaska, USA so her family moved there in 1982 then moved her back to Texas in November 1984 particularly on Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, where he spent most of his childhood. As a kid, he struggled with asthma. In 1986, he started school at the Seventh-Day Adventist Academy in Killeen. In 1987, he spent the summer in Colorado, USA with his mother who was temporarily assigned there for a medical training.
In June 1992, his mother had an open-heart surgery to correct a hole in her heart. In September 1992, his drunk father struck his mother in the chest and sprayed her with mace. His parents divorced in 1993. His father left their house and was later diagnosed as HIV-positive.
His cousin Melsimeon Pollock came to live with his family in 1994 and encouraged him to help him burglarize houses in January 1995. The two were eventually caught and he bounced between his parents’ houses, switched schools several times and spent five months at a juvenile residential living facility in Brownwood, Texas in 1995. In 2016, Pollock wrote in a declaration, “Brandon stole things with me because Brandon knew I needed the money and Brandon wanted to support me and feel a sense of belonging. Brandon would not have broken into these houses on his own. He is not a mastermind, Brandon just followed what others had planned.”
As a teenager, he became involved with loosely organized gang of neighborhood friends called 212 Piru Bloods. At same time, he actively attended a Seventh Day Adventist church. In 1996, he tried to look for a job but failed. He passed the GED examination in July 1997 and enrolled in the 12th grade at Killeen High School for the 1997-1998 school year but failed to maintain good attendance and good grades. In the summer of 1998, he tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected because of his juvenile record. In the fall of 1998, his parents explored a possible reconciliation, which he did not support.
On June 21, 1999, Vialva and their fellow 212 Piru Bloods gang members Christopher Lewis, Tony Sparks and Terry Brown carjacked Todd and Stacie. They called him because they needed someone with a car to escape in and he joined the group at 7:30 p.m. that day. It was Vialva who shot the couple. Following Vialva’s order, he set Todd and Stacie’s car on fire using lighter fluid while the couple was in it. Todd was already dead before being burned while Stacie died of smoke inhalation.
Because the murders were committed on Fort Hood, he and Vialva were tried in federal court. On June 13, 2000, a jury of 11 white people and one African-American person at his trial in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas found him and Vialva guilty of carjacking, first-degree murder on a government reservation, aiding and abetting and conspiracy to commit murder. The jury unanimously voted for the two to receive the death penalty.
In 2018, his lawyers discovered that the government had withheld evidence that may have helped him during his trial years earlier.
On October 16, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that he was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on December 10, 2020 at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute where Vialva was executed by lethal injection on September 24, 2020.
In 2020, five of the nine surviving jurors who sentenced him and Vialva to death for the killings of Todd and Stacie on Fort Hood called on Trump to commute his sentence. Among them were Jason Fuller and Gary McClung. Angela Moore, who served as an assistant U.S attorney for the Western District of Texas from 1998 to 2002, was the federal prosecutor who defended his death verdict on appeal. In an IndyStar op-ed published on November 18, 2020, she explained why a court or Trump should stop his execution.
During a court hearing on Zoom from death row at the federal prison in Terre Haute on December 2, 2020, federal public defender John Carpenter argued on behalf of him that the U.S. government cannot legally execute him because he has not yet exhausted all of his appeals. After an hour, Judge Alan Albright decided that his execution could go forward as planned.
Weeks before his execution, Kiara, his mother, his two siblings and his aunt Rahsha Williams visited him in Terre Haute. Williams told WTHI-TV 10, “I went there ready to encourage him and be uplifting to him and it was just the opposite. He uplifted us and he’s at peace and he has accepted what has happened but he is hopeful.”
Kim Kardashian West started a petition to stop him from getting executed. In 2018, she started working with the Donald Trump administration on prison reform. On December 10, 2020, she took to Twitter to ask the 45th U.S. president to commute his sentence to life in prison. On the same day, lawyers Allen Dershowitz and Ken Starr joined his defense team. In the end, he was executed and was pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m.