The Trump administration’s Department of Justice announced new regulations in late November allowing the federal government to execute death row inmates using firing squads, electrocution and poisonous gas. After a 17-year pause on federal executions, the United States killed a man by lethal injection in July.
Seven more have since been executed — all in Indiana at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute.
An additional five inmates know the day they will die. A week before their execution date, they will say goodbye to the friends they’ve waited with and be taken to a separate holding cell. Family might visit during this week. On the final day, they will eat their last meal and wait for the morning.
At dawn, they will dress in a white T-shirt, khaki pants, white socks and slip-on shoes. They’re escorted to the execution chamber — now in view of up to three family members or friends. They give a statement and are ultimately pronounced dead around 7 a.m.
“I saw Chris briefly the day before they took him,” Billie Allen, an author, artist and death row inmate, wrote in a November essay for The Nation about the life and Sept. 24 execution of Christopher Vialva. “Chris told us that he loved us. We said that we loved him too. In a place like this, where trust and friendship is hard to find, we didn’t need a lot of words.”
Before the end of his term, President Donald Trump is on track to kill 13 people in this manner. The seven months from July to January will be the deadliest in American federal execution history since at least 1927, when the Federal Bureau of Prisons began keeping data. And now Attorney General William Barr sets an even higher bar for brutality by returning to firing squads, electric chairs and gas chambers.
In the face of such cruelty, death row inmates, family members-turned-organizers and Bloomington activists fight for their own humanity. Together, they pave a path toward true justice founded on love and a chance of redemption.
“I want people to know that there are innocent people in there who didn’t get effective counsel, my brother being one of them,” said Yvette Allen, the sister of Billie Allen and an anti-death penalty organizer. “They’re trying to give them the firing squad. Everybody should be concerned and outraged by that.”
Billie Allen was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998 for armed bank robbery and the murder of a security guard in St. Louis. He was 19 years old at the time of his conviction and no forensic evidence ties him to the crime. While on death row, he has studied law in an effort to prove his innocence, become a prolific artist and devoted himself to writing.
His sister has advocated for her brother’s freedom and against the death penalty for more than two decades. The Department of Justice must only give 20 days notice for an execution date, and when the Trump administration resumed federal executions, Yvette Allen realized the intensified insecurity of her brother’s life.
She wakes up early every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to check for releases from the Justice Department — an experience she described as traumatic. So far, her brother’s name has been absent from the list, but Yvette can hardly feel relieved. The names of men she’s met, along with their families, fill the space.
Five death row inmates are currently scheduled to be executed before President-elect Joe Biden’s term begins Jan. 20. The fifth, Dustin Higgs, will be killed on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Brandon Bernard is the first, scheduled for execution in Terre Haute on Dec. 10.
At the age of 18, Bernard and four co-defendants were involved in a carjacking and robbery that ended with the murder of two people in 1999. Vialva, who was executed Sept. 24, was among them. Two of his co-defendants have since been released, and the other will be out of prison in 10 years.
The Texas prosecutor who sought Bernard’s death penalty called for his life to be spared in November. She said he was far too young to receive the sentence and that systemic racism plagued the process. The majority of the case’s jury members now say the same and called on Trump to commute the execution.
“The death penalty is wrong,” said Bernard’s sister, Kiki Bernard. “He didn’t deserve that sort of punishment.”
Kiki said he was a loving older brother and described how Brandon used to take care of her as a child. He brought Kiki outside the bounds of Gospel music and introduced her to an array of new genres and artists. While incarcerated, he’s counseled at-risk youth, taken up crocheting, plays guitar and writes.
The Bernard family tries to visit as often as they can, but they live in Texas and making the trip to Terre Haute can often be too expensive. They last saw him near the end of November, more than a month after his name appeared in a Justice Department release.
“It wasn’t a sad visit at all. He was upbeat and happy to see us,” Kiki Bernard said. “His attitude was basically, ‘Don’t worry about me. How are y’all?’”
“How are y’all?” she emphasized again, this time imitating her brother.
Yvette Allen and Kiki Bernard first met while they were visiting their brothers in Terre Haute. The two agreed to a trade-off, and they each spent time speaking with the other’s sibling.
The similarities between the two men’s circumstances are striking. They were both sentenced to death for murder occurring during a robbery in the late 1990s. Both men were teenagers at the time. Both are Black. Their cases each involved other defendants who did not receive the same punishment and neither had effective counsel before conviction.
One maintains his innocence. The other admits his involvement, but says his role was minor compared to the others’.
They both committed their decades on death row to something greater than themselves. Neither deserve to die.
Activists opposing the death penalty will hold a demonstration at 11 a.m. on Saturday at University Park in Indianapolis. Later in the day, they will caravan to the federal prison in Terre Haute with plans of arriving at 3 p.m. A demonstration will also be held at 3 p.m. on Friday at People’s Park in Bloomington. Students are encouraged to attend both.
“Students have always played important, powerful roles in movements,” said Zikra Fashir, an IU senior and member of the Eleanor Roosevelt Society, who helped organize the rally. “We have a lot of power, but we just don’t realize it.”
“We can bring a lot of attention to issues that affect us, and this does affect us because a lot of the people on death row were our age when they were charged,” Fashir added. “It could be us. They are us.”
Bloomington organizers will be raising money on Friday to support the families of those on death row, who often must travel long distances to visit their relatives. You can also donate directly to the “Help Stop Federal Executions” GoFundMe.
“Support means everything,” Yvette Allen said. “These guys have no voice at all. Just to know people are really beginning to hear them and know their names, it means so much to them.”
Editor’s Note: The “Help Stop Federal Executions” GoFundMe was organized by Yvette Allen. All proceeds will go towards families across the country who want to visit their loved one in Terre Haute. You can donate here.
Kyle Linder (he/him) is a senior studying journalism and international relations. He wants everyone to join a union.