On Dec. 10, the day of the first of five federal executions to come before the end of the Trump Administration, six activists protested before the federal courthouse in Kansas City, MO.
Bob Ronan, a member of the Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (MADP) Board of Directors, said after the one-hour vigil, “This is such a travesty today,” the first day of this swath of executions. “It’s International Human Rights Day, and the first day of Hanukah,” he added.
Brandon Bernard was executed at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, IN, the night of Dec. 10, and Alfred Bourgeois was scheduled for execution there Dec. 11. Lisa Montgomery, scheduled for federal execution that week, received a stay until Jan. 12 because her lawyers had coronavirus. Cory Johnson and Dustin John Higgs are slated for execution in Terre Haute Jan. 14 and 15.
Ronan, an electrical engineer, has been rallying/organizing/working for alternatives to the death penalty 15-20 years. Cathleen Burnett, drumming at the rally Dec. 10, has sought such alternatives for 34 years. “We used to say that at the federal level, there was more funding than in Missouri, so people were more likely to have better defense lawyers,” she told the group. “This is mind-boggling,” she said.
Burnett taught sociology at the University of Missouri in Kansas City in 1986, when Amnesty International led a global campaign for alternatives to the death penalty and she became the liaison for that group in the KC area. “At UMKC, I taught a criminal justice class—how the law was supposed to work,” Burnett said in a conversation during the rally. “It was bizarre to teach that in class and then to learn, in so many cases, how the law doesn’t work. Defense lawyers often didn’t know what they’re doing at trial. Police were gung-ho to get a conviction. Judges made mistakes interpreting laws. Prosecutors would withhold evidence and were racially biased, which unfairly influenced predominantly white jurors. There’s a lot that reinforces how horrible this whole machinery of death is.”
Bernard, at 18, was not the reported killer of the couple attacked in June 1999 by a Texas street gang but was involved in the event. The Associated Press reported the night of Dec. 10 that “one prosecutor at his 2000 trial … now says racial bias may have influenced the nearly all-white jury’s imposition of a death sentence against Bernard, who is Black. Several jurors have also since said publicly that they regret not opting for life in prison instead.” The AP also said Bernard “directed his last words to the family of the couple,” saying, “I’m sorry. … That’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.”
The Dec. 10 rally participants included several long-time PeaceWorks and MADP members. Attorney General William Barr scheduled eight executions earlier this year and now the five toward the end of this administration. Before these executions, the country had not had a federal execution in 17 years. Ronan said Missouri has 20 persons on death row, the federal government has about 50 persons under the death sentence, and the states all together have about 800 on death row. For information from MADP, see www.MADP.org.
—Story and photos by Jane Stoever of PeaceWorks-KC