I Befriended A Man On Dying Row. This is What He Taught Me Earlier than He Was Put To Dying.

Brandon Bernard referred to as and emailed me day by day within the two months earlier than his execution. We spoke just a few hours earlier than he was executed and a few of our final phrases have been spent discussing his final phrases. For the primary time, his optimism was gone. Even the day earlier than, he sounded hopeful as a result of he had heard that the Division of Justice’s Workplace of the Pardon Lawyer strongly recommended his sentence be commuted to life in prison

Brandon learn his speech to the Pardon Workplace to me earlier than presenting it, and the profound stage of regret he expressed introduced me to tears. He was a unique individual from {the teenager} arrested over 20 years earlier. Up till the tip, he didn’t assume he could be executed as a result of he knew he had reformed.

I started writing to demise row prisoners after studying Bryan Stevenson’s e book “Just Mercy” about an harmless man condemned to demise row. Books typically change my course; I learn a book on factory farming just a few years in the past and haven’t eaten meat since. After studying “Simply Mercy,” I despatched out postcards to a few dozen demise row inmates throughout the U.S. Once I began what my husband, household and mates universally take into account an odd pastime, I had no thought how gratifying and life-altering writing demise row prisoners would grow to be.  

After we first started exchanging letters a 12 months in the past, I warned Brandon that I had one different pen pal at Terre Haute federal penitentiary. In my expertise, inmates don’t wish to write somebody with a number of pen friends on the identical facility out of respectable issues over privateness and security. Brandon’s quick response was, “Properly, then that makes me one of many two luckiest males at Terre Haute.” To name himself fortunate after over two decades of solitary confinement 23 hours a day in a six-by-eight-foot cell was the primary of many classes in gratitude Brandon taught me.

Brandon was 18 when he took half in a theft gone mistaken. He had no prior historical past of violence. Brandon’s mates carjacked a white couple, Todd and Stacey Bagley, youth ministers innocently providing a experience to youngsters purportedly in want. Later, Brandon rejoined the group solely to see Christopher Vialva, the ringleader of the crime, fatally shoot Todd and Stacey within the head at shut vary. The person who had simply shot two individuals within the head and nonetheless had a gun in his hand then ordered Brandon and three different teenagers to set the automobile on fireplace with the couple’s our bodies inside. Brandon did as he was told. 

At trial, Brandon’s court-appointed lawyer made no opening statement, that means he provided the jury no various perspective on the fees. Brandon was the one confederate not given a chance to plead responsible. The opposite accomplices pleaded out and obtained jail sentences; two are residence with their households now. 

5 of the 9 surviving jurors later did a public about-face, stating that they might not have voted for the demise penalty had prosecutors disclosed all info at trial and had Brandon’s personal lawyer competently defended him.

Brandon was falsely portrayed as a hardened high-level gang member. Prosecutors suppressed proof by their very own gang skilled that the gang had a 13-tier hierarchy with Brandon at the very bottom. Brandon by no means received the possibility to make clear his case in courtroom — it remained the story poorly informed at trial twenty years earlier. 5 of the 9 surviving jurors later did a public about-face, stating that they might not have voted for the demise penalty had prosecutors disclosed all info at trial and had Brandon’s personal lawyer competently defended him.  

In her dissent written hours earlier than Brandon’s execution, Supreme Courtroom Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the execution was taking place “regardless of troubling allegations that the Authorities secured his demise sentence by withholding exculpatory proof and knowingly eliciting false testimony towards him. [He] has by no means had the chance to check the deserves of these claims in courtroom. Now he by no means will.” At 40, Brandon was the youngest person executed by the federal authorities in practically 70 years. 

Brandon beloved his life, even in its restricted capability on demise row. He did not have a single disciplinary infraction in his a long time behind bars. That is no small feat on condition that demise row is sort of a jail inside a jail, with numerous oppressive guidelines and ensuing frustrations. 

Brandon primarily spent his time mentoring at-risk youth, studying, crocheting and taking part in the guitar. Brandon was calmer and extra affected person than most individuals I’ve come throughout; he spoke slowly and thoughtfully and was an avid listener. He by no means cursed and once I requested if that was for spiritual causes, he mentioned, “No, cursing simply feels too aggressive to me.”

A number of days earlier than his execution, Brandon’s household visited him for the final time.  After the go to, Brandon informed me there was a gap within the pane of glass. I naively mentioned, “Oh, so that you have been capable of maintain palms.” He defined it was an air gap to talk by way of, not massive sufficient for palms, “However,” he mentioned, “I may odor my mother.” In 20 years, together with in his remaining days, Brandon was by no means allowed to bodily contact a beloved one. By no means having bodily contact is an inhumane day by day assault on the soul.

Brandon’s case matches the demise row profile: His crime and trial occurred in Texas, a state that has executed one-third of the nationwide whole. Brandon’s jury consisted of 11 white jurors. Brandon was Black — regardless of being 13% of the U.S. inhabitants, Blacks constitute 42% of demise row inmates. The victims are white in approximately 80% of murder demise penalty circumstances. A latest Death Penalty Information Center study discovered that in executions involving interracial murders since 1976, 295 Black defendants have been executed for killing white victims, whereas solely 21 white defendants have been executed for killing Black victims. Dying row is riddled with racial bias and is disproportionately residence to Black males who have committed an alleged crime towards a white individual. Equity can’t be achieved. Executions in our nation, whether or not with rope or needle, have all the time been about race.

President Joe Biden has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty and to offer incentives for states to do the identical. There’s a easy various to authorities executions: Preserve individuals behind bars with out resorting to killing them. Two-thirds of countries worldwide have abolished the demise penalty. Italy abolished the demise penalty in 1948; England in 1969. Within the Netherlands, the final execution occurred in 1952; Australia in 1967. Since ending the demise 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 nation keeps dubious company with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan. We’re very late in ending state-sponsored executions. It may be performed; final month Virginia became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty. Brandon, together with his typical positivity, would say now’s the time.

Brandon’s remaining phrases have been his deep remorse to the victims’ households, his love for his family and, true to his considerate nature, he informed the jail guards to not let his execution upset them.

Mates sitting on demise row for years have taught me many classes: persistence, holding the dialog actual and significant, and appreciating what I’ve.  The effort of driving my daughter to highschool is now about holding her hand at stoplights and rolling the home windows down so I can really feel the air. The liberty.

I’ve realized that pure good and evil not often exist in actuality and that I can do higher than unequivocal righteousness. However, primarily I’ve found that love is such a elementary want of all folks that it may possibly create a bond between a “suburban white lady,” as one San Quentin good friend calls me, and a former LA gang member who has forsaken the medicine and crime of his youth. I’ve additionally come to grasp that individuals can profoundly change with time.

Throughout our day by day talks, I by no means had something to supply Brandon apart from my love and assist. He by no means requested me for a single factor moreover friendship. Brandon was spiritual, however since I’m not, I couldn’t supply him prayers or discuss how heaven is a greater place. I may solely helplessly pay attention and inform him that I really like him.  

Brandon’s final words have been his deep remorse to the victims’ households, his love for his family and, true to his considerate nature, he informed the jail guards to not let his execution upset them. Our remaining phrases to one another have been about what he would visualize on the gurney to remain calm. I informed him to think about my arms holding him down as an alternative of straps and he promised he would. I used to be crying and informed him I used to be sorry I couldn’t save him. He mentioned I saved him with my love. And we mentioned goodbye.

Jennifer Wasserstein is an immigration lawyer and lives in Italy together with her husband and daughter.  

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