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US carries out rare execution during presidential transition

Brandon Bernard was the ninth person to be killed via federal execution this year.

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A protester holds an anti death penalty sign along Prairieton Road across from the Federal Execution Chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana (Austen Leake/The Tribune-Star via AP)

A protester holds an anti death penalty sign along Prairieton Road across from the Federal Execution Chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana (Austen Leake/The Tribune-Star via AP)

A protester holds an anti death penalty sign along Prairieton Road across from the Federal Execution Chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana (Austen Leake/The Tribune-Star via AP)

The Trump administration carried out the first execution during a presidential lame-duck period in 130 years on Thursday, putting to death a Texas street-gang member for his role in the slayings of a religious couple from Iowa more than two decades ago.

It marks the ninth federal execution of the year, with four more federal executions, including one on Friday, planned for the weeks before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

The case of Brandon Bernard, who received a lethal injection of phenobarbital inside a death chamber at a US prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, was a rare execution of a person who was in his teens when his crime was committed.

Several high-profile figures, including reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, had appealed to President Donald Trump to commute Mr Bernard’s sentence to life in prison.

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Brandon Bernard was executed on Thursday evening (Stacey Brownstein/Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Washington via AP)

Brandon Bernard was executed on Thursday evening (Stacey Brownstein/Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Washington via AP)

AP/PA Images

Brandon Bernard was executed on Thursday evening (Stacey Brownstein/Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Washington via AP)

Mr Bernard, 40, directed his last words to the family of the couple he killed, speaking with striking calm for someone who knew he was about to die.

“I’m sorry,” he said, lifting his head and looking at the witness-room windows.

“That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.”

Mr Bernard was 18 when he and four other teenagers abducted and robbed Todd and Stacie Bagley on their way from a Sunday service in Killeen, Texas.

Federal executions were resumed by Mr Trump in July after a 17-year hiatus despite coronavirus outbreaks in US prisons.

Alfred Bourgeois, a 56-year-old Louisiana truck driver, is set to die on Friday for killing his two-year-old daughter by repeatedly slamming her head into a truck’s windows and dashboard.

Mr Bourgeois’ lawyers alleged he was intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, but several courts said evidence did not support that claim.

Before Mr Bernard’s execution, Ms Kardashian West tweeted that she had spoken to him earlier: “Hardest call I’ve ever had. Brandon, selfless as always, was focused on his family and making sure they are ok. He told me not to cry because our fight isn’t over.”

And just before the execution was scheduled, Mr Bernard’s lawyers filed papers with the Supreme Court seeking to halt the execution.

But about two and a half hours after the execution was scheduled, the Supreme Court denied the request, clearing the way for the execution to proceed.

Federal executions during a presidential transfer of power are rare, especially during a transition from a death-penalty proponent to a president-elect opposed to capital punishment like Joe Biden.

The last time executions occurred in a lame-duck period was during the presidency of Grover Cleveland in the 1890’s.

The Justice Department refused to delay Thursday’s execution of Mr Bernard, another inmate on Friday and three more in January, even after eight officials who participated in an execution last month tested positive for the coronavirus.

The eight federal executions in 2020 already is more than in the previous 56 years combined.

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