Waiting to Die: Brandon Bernard

News 10's Sarah Lehman served as a media witness for Brandon Bernad's execution at the federal prison in Terre Haute.

Posted: Dec 11, 2020 1:32 AM
Updated: Dec 11, 2020 3:00 PM

VIGO COUNTY, Ind. (WTHI) -- On Thursday night at 9:27 Brandon Bernard became the 9th federal death row inmate to be executed in Terre Haute.

I was the media witness for this execution. This is now my second execution to watch this year. 

Thursday, Bernards execution was set for 6 p.m. However, after a lot of back and forth between his legal team and the supreme court, it was pushed back more than 3 hours.

Because of that, this execution was much different than the first one I was a witness to.

At around 5:15 a Bureau of Prisons employee briefed the media on what was set to happen. During that briefing is when we learned that he would have 6 witnesses in the execution chambers. That included a spiritual advisor, 2 attorneys, and 3 family members.

It is when we also learned, that the victim's family would be speaking with the media after the execution.

This was a change from Christopher Vialva's execution. Vialva was executed in September after being convicted in the same case. Back then, the victims' families gave the media a written statement. 

Once 6 o'clock came and went we realized this could be a long night ahead. We were not given any information on why the execution was not happening or when it could happen.

At around 7:01, we were told to start getting ready that we would "load up soonish." Media witnesses were put into 2 different vans and driven to a different building to go through the security screening.

Typically, what I learned as the media witness the first time, after that screening you start the drive toward the execution chambers. But, this time, we got back in the vans, and over the two-way radio we heard "take them back to the media room." 

We knew that meant there were more legal proceedings happening. Again, we did not know if or when the execution would happen. 

Back in the media waiting room the other witnesses and I were talking about what we knew when it came to legal proceedings.

Then, a few hours later, around 8:30. we were told to get ready because we would leave soon. Again, we loaded up in the separate vans and made our way onto the United States Penitentiary property.  

At 9:07 media witnesses were ushered into our designated room in the execution chambers.

The blinds were slowly lifted and laying on a gurney, in the middle of the green room, with a sheet pulled up to his neck and a surgical face mask on was Brandon Bernard. 

As soon as the blinds were up, Bernard looked to his left, our right, and gave a small wave. The other media witnesses and I believe this is the room where his family was sitting.

On his left and right were two BOP employees. In the corner to his left was a spiritual adviser.

Then, one of the employees started the process of his execution. The face mask was taken off of Bernard. The employee asked Bernard if he had any last words. Lifting his head up off the gurney, Bernard said yes and started saying his final statement. In total it lasted about 3 minutes. 

Media witnesses do not get a copy of what is said. So, we have to try and write everything down as it is being said.

This is what I heard:

"Over the last 20 years, I have had peace in my heart because I know I've been forgiven for my actions. I wish I could take it back. All I can do is try to live life as best as I could to honor them. I thought one day I could say sorry. If my death is what's needed to heal pain, then so be it. I hope all can move on and will forgive me for what I did and what I took from them. In my time on death row, I have met people who have taught me how to be better. I'm sorry are the only words I can say that captures how I feel now and how I felt that day."

During this final statement, he was speaking loud and clear. There was no fear or nervousness in his voice. He did not come off as someone who knew they were about to die. To me, this showed that he had accepted what was about to happen.

Around 9:11 the lethal injection started. The microphone in the chamber was turned off, but we could see Bernard looking to his left where his family and spiritual advisor were seated. Bernard was mouthing things toward their direction, almost in prayer. 

At one point, he looked up at one of the employees and seemed to ask, "has it started" talking about the lethal injection. He shook his head 'yes'.

Then, at around 9:15 his whole body started shaking, he opened his mouth wide, almost as if yelling, and then the movement stopped. His eyes closed, his mouth opened just slightly, and you saw the last of his breath leave his body. He looked almost peaceful.

About 10 minutes after that, the Vigo County Coroner came into the room with a stethoscope. He checked his pulse on his wrist and checked for a heartbeat. He placed his hand on Bernard's chest, put his stethoscope back around his neck, and left the room.

Then we heard, "Time of death, 9:27. That concludes the execution of inmate Bernard." Then, the pale green blinds slowly lowered.

The media witnesses were loaded back into the vans and taken back to the media briefing room.

A few minutes later, Todd and Stacie Bagley's family entered the room. They were all wearing the same shirt. A dark blue, short-sleeved shirt with a picture of Todd and Stacie that read "In loving memory" and the date of their death.

Two women spoke from the family. First Georgia Bagley.

She said in part:

"Please remember that the lives of family and friends were shattered and we all have grieved for 21 years waiting for justice to finally be served. Thank you to all who were involved in this process of getting justice for Todd and Stacie. The apology and remorse that was shown to the family and the fact that they regretted their acts at that time helped very much to heal my heart, and I can truly say I forgive them." 

The next woman to take the podium said in part: 

"On June 21, 1999, our lives were changed forever because this is the day that Todd and Stacie were executed. Todd and Stacie were full of life, in love, and proudly served the Lord as Christian youth ministers. Even after being forced into the trunk of their car at gunpoint and driven around for over 7 hours, Todd and Stacie still managed to provide the plan of salvation to their attackers until they were shot and burned beyond recognition. Stacie still had the chance of survival until the car was set on fire. I pray that Brandon has accepted Christ as his savior because if he has, Todd and Stacie will welcome him into heaven with love and forgiveness. God will forgive us for our sins, but the consequences of our sins will always play out." 

Case Background: 

Bernard was one of five gang members convicted in Texas of killing Stacie and Todd Bagley in 1999. The gunman, Christopher Vialva, was executed in September, while the other co-defendants were given lesser sentences.

Bernard along with several accomplices, kidnapped, carjacked, and murdered the Bagleys. The group forces them into the trunk of their car and eventually parked at a remote area on the Fort Hood military reservation, where accomplice, Christopher Vialva, shot both victims. Then Bernard, just 18 at the time, set fire to the car.

An autopsy showed Todd died of the gunshot wound. But, Stacie's cause of death was smoke inhalation. For that reason, they asked jurors to give the death penalty.

Former federal prosecutor Angela Moore said, while he is not innocent of a crime, evidence shows Bernard was not involved in planning the murder of the Bagleys.

Leading up to his execution many of the jurors on the case in 2000 came forward saying they don't believe he should have been sentenced to death. 

His case got a lot of traction in the last few weeks. People from across the world speaking up, signing petitions, and calling on President Donald Trump to stop the execution. Even getting attention from Kim Kardashian West who was working to try and stop the execution and in close contact with Bernard and his family.

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