Client News, Staff News, &
Despite pleas for clemency made by hundreds of thousands of supporters, including celebrities, faith leaders, and members of the United States Congress, the federal government executed our client, Brandon Bernard on December 10, 2020. Those of us who loved Brandon -- and we are many -- are full of righteous anger and deep sadness at the unjust taking of his life. Brandon’s life mattered. To his legal team; to our office as a whole; to his two beautiful and talented daughters; to his mother, brother, and sister; and to the countless people around the country who came to know him and his story in recent weeks.
Brandon made one terrible mistake at age 18. But he did not kill anyone, and he never stopped feeling shame and profound remorse for his actions in the crime that took the lives of Todd and Stacie Bagley. And he spent the rest of his life sincerely trying to show, as he put it, that he “was not that person.” Brandon showed us that and so much more, carrying himself with grace and generosity, and always treating everyone around him with kindness and respect. He worked to help other troubled kids avoid similar devastating mistakes, and he lived every day his commitment to serving both God and humanity.
Many things went wrong to put Brandon on death row, including egregious government misconduct in concealing evidence and misleading the jury, which the courts refused to remedy. Before Brandon’s execution, five of the jurors who sentenced him to death said they no longer stood by that verdict. They joined the lead appellate prosecutor on Brandon’s case in urging President Trump to commute his death sentence to life without parole. And as noted, a chorus of others joined this request.
Brandon’s execution is a stain on America’s criminal justice system. It highlights the arbitrary application of the death penalty in this country, as well as its racist implementation. Brandon had neither a fair trial nor a fair appellate review process. The courts that were obligated to ensure fair processes failed miserably. We pray that even in his death, Brandon will advance his commitment to helping others by moving us closer to a time when this country does not pointlessly and maliciously kill young Black men who pose no threat to anyone, when we hold prosecutors to the highest standards of integrity in every case, and when our leaders exercise their moral authority where it is needed.
We were proud to have called Brandon our friend, and we miss him greatly.
The U.S. Supreme Court order denying the stay of execution, with a dissent from Justice Sotomayor, can be found here:
A day before Brandon's execution, before Brandon knew that President Trump was going to disregard the clemency recommendation of both the Pardon Office and DOJ, Brandon said "If I have to die, my only prayer is that it takes some of the pain away that the Bagley family experienced." Brandon also said that he wanted to make sure his executioners knew that Brandon forgave them for killing him and that he didn't want his executioners to carry any guilt for what they did to Brandon.
Seattle Paralegal Michael Larson retires after 22 years at the Office!
Words cannot express how much the Federal Public Defender’s Office, and the paralegal department in particular, will miss our colleague and friend, Michael Larson. His contributions to our office are too varied to list but they all involved genuine caring for our clients and for our staff. We wish him and the family he cherishes all of the best in retirement. Perhaps his career and the way many of us feel about him is best summarized by this snippet from the scrapbook the office assembled for Michael in honor of this occasion:
Though more than 20 years ago, I remember hiring you. You enjoyed advantages
the other applicants didn’t---your prior employment included a stint with an
ancient Deadhead friend of mine and you had done some DJ’ing yourself. With
those extra credits, you were a shoo in. And the FPD and its clients were the
beneficiaries of your arrival. You were a rock, a go-to when work needed to get
done. Unflappable, organized and reliable. And a great guy to boot. I enjoyed all
our many and varied conversations – most occurring in your office where I found
myself frequently when I needed a break and someone sane to chew the fat with.
You have earned the break and I hope you are going to take it—please don’t flunk
retirement like I did. Live it and love it like I love you.
The passage of the First Step Act in December 2018 expanded compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1), allowing our clients to file compassionate release motions to reduce sentences based on “extraordinary and compelling reasons” directly with their sentencing courts. Through advocacy by the whole office, the district courts have joined the majority of courts across the nation that recognize the COVID-19 pandemic should inform the requisite analysis – either in terms of whether extraordinary and compelling reasons exist or, if a person qualifies for a sentence reduction, whether relief is warranted based on § 3553(a) factors. Together with members of the CJA panel, we have filed over 300 petitions under § 3582(c).
This month, another motions was granted; the story follows:
Our 51-year-old client Mr. R was granted compassionate release after serving 8 years of a 12- year sentence for being involved in a drug conspiracy back in 2012. HR has coronary artery disease and suffered 2 heart attacks while in BOP, which makes him vulnerable to deadly consequences from COVID-19.
In opposing release, the Government reprehensibly downplayed his medical history as mere “chest pains” and urged the court to use his one infraction for using marijuana as a reason to deny compassionate release.
In its order the Court (wisely) observed that “Under ordinary circumstances, his offense would demand that he serve the final two years of his twelve-year prison sentence. But the circumstances today are not ordinary. The conditions of incarceration during the pandemic are difficult for all inmates, and for Mr. R, they also pose a risk to his life. The Court could not have foreseen the emergence of a global pandemic when Mr. R was sentenced in 2014. Having served two-thirds of his sentence and spent a significant amount of time—eight years—in prison, early release from confinement would not undermine the goals of sentencing. To the contrary, potentially risking Mr. R’s life would not promote respect for the law or constitute just punishment for the underlying offense.”
First Assistant Miriam Schwartz was the assigned AFD, with amazing support/assistance from Tacoma Research & Writing attorney, Alan Zarky, Tacoma paralegal Carolynn Cohn, and Tacoma investigator Mike Stortini. Tacoma Case Manager Jessica Cvitanovic and Tacoma paralegal Amy Strickling also pitched in as needed. Seattle Investigator Jen Davis assisted by reaching out to Dr. Marc Stern, who provided the expert medical opinion necessary to support release. The USPO approved our proposed release plan to HR’s longtime friend, which allows Mr. R to serve out the remainder of his sentence on home confinement. He and his family are infinitely grateful to the FPD for giving him the opportunity to move forward with his life!