The Trump administration is planning an unprecedented five more federal executions before President-elect Joe Biden takes power, starting with a man set to be put to death today for his role in a crime committed when he was 18.
Brandon Bernard was convicted over his part in the 1999 killings of an Iowa religious couple, whose bodies he burned in the boot of their car.
He and four other teenagers abducted and robbed Todd and Stacie Bagley on their way from a Sunday service in Killeen, Texas.
Bernard, now 40, would be the ninth federal inmate put to death since July, when Donald Trump ended a 17-year hiatus in federal executions.
If he receives a lethal injection as planned at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, it would be a rare execution of a person who was in his teens when the crime occurred.
Federal executions during a presidential transfer of power are also rare, especially during a transition from a death-penalty supporter to a president-elect like Biden opposed to capital punishment.
The last time executions were carried out during a lame-duck period was during the presidency of Grover Cleveland in the 1890s.
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Defence lawyers have argued in court and in a petition for clemency from Mr Trump that Bernard was a low-ranking, subservient member of the group.
They say both Bagleys were likely dead before Bernard doused their car with lighter fluid and set it on fire, a claim that conflicts with government testimony at trial.
#BrandonBernard should not be executed:
1. He was 18 at the time.
2. He was not the shooter.
3. The prosecutor and 5 of the jurors now support clemency.
4. He’s spent decades in prison w/out a write up, helping at risk youth.
5. There’s bipartisan support for his commutation. pic.twitter.com/18GugdtuOs
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) December 10, 2020
Bernard, they add, has repeatedly expressed remorse.
“I can’t imagine how they feel about losing their family,” Bernard said about surviving Bagley relatives in a 2016 video statement from death row.
“I wish that we could all go back and change it.”
Donald Trump reinstates death penalty for federal crimes
He also described taking part in youth outreach programs and embracing religion, adding: “I have tried to be a better person since that day.”
The case has prompted calls for Mr Trump to intervene, including from one prosecutor at his 2000 trial.
That prosecutor now says racial bias may have influenced the nearly all-white jury’s decision to order a death sentence against Bernard, who is black.
A number of jurors have also since said publicly that they regret not opting for life in prison instead.
And Reality TV star Kim Kardashian West is among those who have asked Mr Trump to stop the execution, saying in a series of recent tweets that Bernard’s “role was minor compared to that of the other teens involved”.
The Justice Department has refused to delay Thursday’s execution of Bernard, another inmate on Friday and three more in January, despite eight officials who participated in an execution last month testing positive for the coronavirus.
The eight federal executions in 2020 is already more than in the previous 56 years combined. Federal executions are those ordered by the US government for federal crimes, as opposed to those carried out by individual states.
One of Bernard’s co-defendants, Christopher Vialva, was put do death in September.
Todd Bagley’s mother, Georgia, issued a statement after that execution, saying: “I believe when someone deliberately takes the life of another, they suffer the consequences for their actions.”