A man scheduled for execution next month in the June 1999 killing of two Iowa youth ministers at Fort Hood filed a petition Tuesday asking a federal court to commute his sentence to a life prison term without the possibility of parole.
Brandon Bernard and one of his five co-defendants, Christopher Vialva, were sentenced to death after their 2000 trial in Waco’s U.S. District Court. Vialva was executed Sept. 23, the seventh federal prisoner put to death since federal executions resumed in July after a 17-year hiatus. Officials scheduled Bernard last month for a Dec. 10 execution by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Trial testimony showed a group of teenagers asked for a ride from Todd and Stacie Bagley, visiting the Killeen area from Ottumwa, Iowa, while they were using a pay phone at a store. Vialva pulled a gun and forced the Bagleys into the trunk of their car, then drove around for hours while trying to use their ATM cards and attempting to pawn Stacie Bagley’s wedding ring.
Bernard, Vialva and four Killeen teenagers were charged in the June 1999 incident. Two of the teens provided vivid testimony against Vialva and Bernard, telling jurors that Stacie Bagley read the Bible to her captors as she and her husband pleaded for their lives. Vialva drove to a remote area on Fort Hood, shot them both in the head and set the car on fire while Stacie Bagley was still alive, according to trial testimony.
Bernard’s petition for a life sentence argues he was a low-ranking member of the teenage gang that committed the crimes, and did not know anyone would be killed that day.
“Brandon was not present when the Bagleys were abducted, was absent for most of the events of the carjacking, and did not shoot anyone,” the petition states. “He helped set fire to the victims’ car, but only at Vialva’s direction and after it appeared to all present that the Bagleys had been killed by the shots fired by Vialva. Up until that point, Brandon never fully comprehended that the Bagleys were not going to be released.”
Stacey Brownstein, an investigator and federal public defender, has been working on Bernard’s case since 2013. She said she filed his clemency petition Tuesday, and four of the nine surviving jurors in the original trial now support reducing the sentence. A fifth is unopposed to reducing the sentence, she said.
“We think it’s significant that the majority of the surviving jurors no longer want their sentence to stand and they want it to be changed to life without parole,” Brownstein said. “Brandon would never get out, but his life would be saved.”
Gary McClung is one of four original jurors in Bernard’s trial who now believes the sentence he received was unjust. McClung said he has never been opposed to the death penalty in general, but thinks it was misused in Bernard’s case.
“I didn’t feel comfortable with it, but I did not stand on that conviction when I should have,” McClung said. “From the testimony, his demeanor during the trial, I just didn’t sense that the intent was ever to kill anyone.”
Brownstein said as a death row inmate, Bernard remains locked in his cell 23 hours a day.
“He’s never hugged his two daughters. He’s never held their hand,” Brownstein said.
His family visits once a year and must remain separated from him by a glass panel. If his sentence were commuted, he would remain in prison as part of the general population and would be able to see his family more than once a year.
“He has zero write-ups, which is amazing for an individual in prison,” Brownstein said. “He has reached out and counseled at-risk youth so they don’t follow the same path he did when he was a young teenager. He’s learned to crochet and play the guitar. So he’s tried to live as much as he can confined to a small cell.”
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