On December 10, as the scheduled execution for Brandon Bernard ran late, people took to Twitter for last-minute attempts to convince the government to exonerate him. Tweets noting that “Brandon Bernard has not been executed yet,” and “He’s still alive” ended with calls for people to keep calling the Department of Justice and leave a message, asking officials to commute Bernard’s death sentence.
Despite the delays—which fostered hopes of the prospect of an emergency stay—and despite all those messages, Bernard was executed at 9:27 p.m. Bernard, 40, was put to death for a crime he committed at 18. He committed his crime when he was younger than any other person sentenced to death in nearly 70 years. After news of his death, the tone on Twitter among activists turned somber and frustrated. Kim Kardashian West—who published Bernard’s situation back in November, asking her followers to “let President Trump know that you think Brandon’s death sentence is unjust”—wrote she felt “messed up” after his death, calling the justice system “so fucked up.”
For those who did place calls—and tweet at Trump, and send emails—the fact that Bernard was still killed may have made them feel like their voices hadn’t been heard. But even if someone at the Department of Justice didn’t personally listen to all of those messages (it’s unclear who does, or how many were left; the DOJ did not respond to a request for comment), it’s still important that people left them, says Eliza Orlins, a public defender and a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, who opposes the death penalty and who herself called and urged others to do so.
“This is a DOJ being run by Trump and, at the time, [AG William] Barr, and I’m not sure that they’re susceptible to the usual modes of influence,” she says. “But—especially the fact that in this next administration there’s a real chance someone actually will listen—it’s so critical that we keep raising our voices and keeping that pressure up.”
Bernard is not the only recent execution performed by the federal government. The Trump administration has scheduled a spate of executions in its final weeks, a rarity during a lame-duck period. Bernard was the ninth person put to death by the federal government in 2020; on December 11, the day after Bernard’s execution, the government killed Alfred Bourgeois. Three more federal executions are planned before President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. The 10 civilian executions that the federal government has conducted in the past five months is more than any other presidency in the 20th or 21st centuries, according to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center. These executions also mark the first by a lame-duck president in more than a century; including the scheduled executions, the Trump administration executed more people during a presidential transition period than ever before in U.S. history.
“I’m sure a lot of people are feeling helpless right now,” Orlins says. “I have also been feeling helpless over the last weeks since they killed [Bernard], and I’m trying to explore how people can be heard when it comes to this issue or, even if not, how this section of our ‘justice’ system is out of reach and closed off to so many.” Those online exhortations to call, and the fact that so many people were talking about Bernard in general, do show that people were being heard—if not by an official at the department, then by their peers and local politicians.
“I do think that’s an important thing, to make those in power understand that this is not what people want,” she says of the conversation around Bernard and these lame-duck executions. And even if the president doesn’t see those messages, your local district attorney might. “It sends a powerful message.”
Despite the Trump administration’s last-minute push, the overall number of executions in the U.S. has actually dropped. There have been 17 total executions in 2020, 10 of which were federal deaths—the lowest number of executions performed at the state level in 37 years. This year was the first in U.S. history that federal executions have outnumbered state executions. That combined total of 17 executions is down from 22 in 2019, and marks the lowest total executions since 1991. In March 2020, Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty.
Bernard’s death, though disheartening to anti-death-penalty activists, hasn’t quieted their efforts. Since his execution, dozens of people have called for Biden to abolish the death penalty—including more than three dozen Congress members through a letter authored by Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley. On his campaign site, Biden has said he plans to work with Congress to eliminate the death penalty, but that’s still not a sign for activists to sit back, Orlins says.
“This is a systemic issue,” she says. “And I think that the number-one thing that people can do now that there has been this awakening to these injustices that have always existed in our system is to continue paying attention and continue making our voices heard.”