Brandon Bernard, then 18, joined a robbery plot in 1999 that resulted in two grisly murders, a jury found. Several accomplices, who were ages 15 to 17 and considered juveniles under the law, were ineligible for the federal death penalty and received prison sentences. Another participant in the kidnapping and murder case, who was 19 at the time, was executed in September, and on Thursday the Justice Department plans to execute Bernard, now 40, the New York Times reports. The disparate sentences for the teenagers, determined partly by age differences of months or a few years, have put new focus on the distinction between adults and juveniles in sentencing. The execution of the man who shot the victims, Christopher Vialva, was one of eight since the Trump administration ended a nearly two-decade moratorium and resumed federal executions in July.
Bernard’s defense team started a campaign to commute his sentence, and supporters have sent tens of thousands of letters to President Donald Trump. Among his supporters is Kim Kardashian West, who has tried to rally public support for Bernard on Twitter. Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Cory Booker, (D-NJ) also asked Trump to commute Bernard’s sentence. The Federal Death Penalty Act, the 1994 law that expanded the crimes eligible for the death penalty, said no one under 18 at the time of the offense may be sentenced to death. The designation of 18 as the age that defines adulthood has become the subject of scrutiny. Since Bernard’s sentencing, states have begun to reconsider who they define as juveniles, said Lael Chester of the Emerging Adult Justice Project at Columbia University’s Justice Lab. “I’m sure this Brandon guy was not acting like a child when he committed the murders,” said Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports crime victims and the death penalty.