During the Trump administration’s time in office, various issues have come to the forefront of the nation’s thought; one in particular, however, has haunted discussion regarding the value of human life. According to Time, the Trump administration began executing federal prisoners again for the first time after a 17-year hiatus in July. Since then, the Trump administration executed more civilians than in any year since 1896. In November, the Department of Justice carried out the first civilian execution in an outgoing presidency in over a century, completed two more in December, and killed three more before President Biden’s inauguration.
All these facts say one thing: the Trump administration has unleashed a nearly unprecedented scheme of cruelty. Each of the executions that have occurred have been met with backlash and grief, the days before becoming a flurry of calls, emails and petitions pleading for mercy. One such example was the Brandon Bernard case. Brandon Bernard was a Black man who was convicted of murder in 1999 at only 18 years old, and was executed at 40 – the youngest offender to be executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years.
Bernard and five other teenagers forced Todd and Stacy Bagley into the trunk of their car before Christopher Vialva, the mastermind of the crime, shot and killed them. Fearful of what Vialva would do to him if he refused, Bernard set the car alight. Because soot was found in her airway, some believed that Stacy Bagley had been killed by smoke inhalation (though some doctors claimed that she was already “medically dead”).
On Dec. 12, social media was ignited by Brandon Bernard’s plight, and the phone number for the Department of Justice spread like wildfire. A script, one in which the caller was instructed to plead for Bernard’s life and to condemn the death penalty as a whole, was circulated along with the contact information, resulting in the DOJ beginning to direct calls to an answering machine. Unfortunately, their calls were ignored, and Bernard was executed. His last words were an apology to the family of his victim.
The death penalty has always been a contentious issue, and opinions of Americans have changed over time. According to Gallup, in 2014, 50% of respondents said that the death penalty was the best option for punishing murder. In 2019, however, 60% preferred a life sentence to death, reflecting a drastic shift in thought surrounding the punishment.
Clearly the tide of public opinion has turned against the death penalty, a testament to the humanity and care for life that many people exhibit. Even in the face of extreme public backlash, the Trump administration refused to listen to the calls for mercy, even when they dominated social media and petitions. The existence of the death penalty and the Trump administration’s encouragement of more loss of life is just one example of the overall brutality that the past four years have been characterized by.
The death penalty is also not infallible. Thanks to organizations like the Innocence Project, many people on death row have been discovered to not be guilty of the crime they were sentenced for. It certainly makes one wonder how many people have lost their lives for crimes that they never committed.
More than just the president, however, it reveals the flaws in the justice system as a whole. According to a study published by the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, Black lives genuinely matter less when it comes to the death penalty. Defendants convicted of killing white victims were 17 times more likely to be executed than those convicted of killing Black victims. This distinction makes perfectly clear that the prejudices our justice system was originally founded on persist today, and are literally killing people.
With this in mind, many have called for the abolition of the death penalty. One can rarely convict someone with 100% certainty, and those who are truly guilty of their crimes would surely pay for their crimes better if imprisoned for life. For all of these reasons, America should pledge loyalty to the side of life and abolish the death penalty.
Photo: Brandon Bernard, who was murdered on Dec. 12, 2020. Photo: Wikimedia Commons