On the day before the Trump administration killed Brandon Bernard, Shanyce Matthews sat on her deck on the north side of Milwaukee. She wore brown sheepskin boots and a bright green T-shirt printed with the word “Love” in loopy cursive below two photographs. One showed Matthews, elegant and demure in a black and white headscarf. The other showed her partner, Orlando Hall.
Hall had been executed less than three weeks earlier, just before midnight on November 19. Matthews was a witness; she wore the T-shirt, along with a face mask with Hall’s picture on it. The experience was traumatic and surreal. “It felt like I was in a movie, or I was in a dream, and at any moment, somebody was gonna shake me and wake me up,” she said.
Matthews had known Hall since they were kids in El Dorado, Arkansas. The two became a couple during her senior year of high school. After she got pregnant, giving birth to a son they named Orlando Jr., they split up, and she moved back to her hometown of Milwaukee to get a fresh start. But in her heart, she felt they belonged together. “I would sit around, and I would be like, ‘OK, today is the day Orlando is gonna come back and get me,’” she said.
But in 1995, Hall was convicted and sentenced to death for his role in a shocking murder. The crime, rooted in a botched drug deal, was horrific — the abduction, repeated rape, and killing of a 16-year-old girl named Lisa René. Matthews could not reconcile the Hall she knew with the monster portrayed on the news. “It was hard for me to grasp that that is something that he could be involved in,” she said. Eventually, she wrote Hall a letter. When they finally spoke on the phone, “I remember a lot of crying, a lot of anger, a lot of blaming,” she said. “For a long time, I felt like if I never left Arkansas, he never would have gotten involved with these things.”
She also grappled with another question: “How do I tell my son?” Some people said she should just change his name; he was still young and did not have to know. But Matthews wanted him to have a relationship with his dad. “I didn’t think my son deserved me to be lying to him.”
Orlando Jr. was about 8 years old when he asked why his father was in prison. Matthews answered as honestly as she could. “And my son started screaming, telling me I was a liar. Why would I do this to him? Why am I saying these things?” She took her son to see Hall so they could talk face to face. But perhaps the hardest part was explaining why his father was never coming home. “What do you mean, he’s not coming?” she remembers him saying. “So I say, ‘Well, the goal for them is to kill him one day.’”
Despite living on borrowed time, Hall forged a relationship with his son. His bond with Matthews deepened too. Through regular calls and occasional visits, he became her best friend and confidant, even though she had married and had kids with another man, whom she would eventually divorce. “He believed in me,” she said. Hall supported her when she became a community organizer, intent on making positive changes in her neighborhood. Matthews had been dismayed to find the same problems facing Black residents of Milwaukee that she’d seen in El Dorado: drugs and violence born of structural racism and poverty. “I could see the traps everywhere,” she said.
Looking back as an adult, Matthews realized how much her neighbors in Arkansas had struggled. Her father had been a police officer in El Dorado before a gunshot wound left him blind; he often encountered people in the kinds of desperate circumstances that led to drugs. “You have a family. Your mom is working her butt off. No matter what she’s doing, she can’t get ahead. No matter what you do, you are never forgiven — for certain people,” Matthews said. “And then these opportunities start coming. … What people view as opportunities. Because it’s putting food in your family’s house. Your mom can breathe. You can breathe. And you’re not thinking of the long-term effects or whatever, because you need to eat right now. It’s people depending on you, right now.”
Hall’s appellate lawyers described a similar trajectory in Hall’s legal filings, which also pointed to numerous problems with his case. Hall had been convicted and sentenced by an all-white jury that remained uninformed about critical aspects of his personal history, including a childhood marked by harrowing abuse and neglect. Matthews had seen Hall take charge of his siblings, making sure they got to school and had enough to eat. “We used to joke that we were adult children,” she said. “We were kids, but the life we were living was very adult.”
Hall had been on death row for about 13 years when Barack Obama won the White House. “There was a surge of excitement in our family,” Matthews recalled. Many were convinced it would mean Hall would have his sentence commuted. “The phone calls I was receiving from people, like, ‘Oh my god, he might be in there forever, but at least he’s not gonna die.’” Obama did not claim to oppose capital punishment — in fact, he’d asserted his support for the death penalty on the campaign trail. Still, Matthews got her hopes up. She started envisioning visits where she could sit next to Hall rather than talking through a plexiglass window. When she saw road work being done on the route from Milwaukee to the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, she welcomed the disruption. It would make future trips to see him that much easier.
But her hopes faded during Obama’s first term. By the time he left office, commuting only two death sentences along the way, she’d accepted that she would be visiting Hall on death row indefinitely. She did not seriously consider that he could be executed. There had not been a federal execution since 2003. But after Attorney General Bill Barr announced in the summer of 2019 that federal executions would resume, Hall told her, “I didn’t prepare y’all for this — and it’s a possibility that I could get a date.”
Matthews was in her kitchen on September 30, joking around with her youngest son and niece, when the phone rang. “They were ragging on me about something,” she said. “And it was so crazy because I had told them … ‘Wait till I get Lan on the phone.’” When she answered and heard his voice, she knew something was wrong. “Nece, Nece, take me off speaker,” he said. Then he told her, “Shanyce, I got a date.”
Photo: Darren Hauck for The Intercept
When the killings first began in Terre Haute, breaking a moratorium that had lasted 17 years, most Americans were not paying much attention. Although the first executions in July attracted some controversy for their lawlessness — and for being pushed through during a raging pandemic — they remained largely out of view. Those who did pay attention saw them as brazenly political, aimed to coincide with Trump’s reelection campaign. Yet apart from a brief mention during a press conference after the first execution, the president never spoke of them again, not even at the Republican National Convention, where he thundered about “law and order.”
But the killing of Brandon Bernard catapulted the death penalty back into the public eye. At the end of a year that saw unprecedented protests for racial justice, his case touched a nerve. Bernard, a Black man, was only 18 years old when he acted as an accomplice to a 1999 murder that left a young white couple dead on the grounds of Fort Hood, Texas. Federal prosecutors conceded that Bernard was not present when Stacie and Todd Bagley were abducted and that another teenager, Christopher Vialva, shot the couple to death. Yet both Vialva and Bernard were sentenced to die.
Bernard’s execution raised an outcry, attracting celebrities and sparking calls to end the death penalty. Afterward, his family was inundated with messages from strangers all over the world. On the HelpSaveBrandon Instagram page last week, advocates urged supporters to give his close friends and relatives time and space to grieve. Yet other relatives of the condemned have remained mostly in the shadows of the executions in Terre Haute.
In the official narrative of capital punishment, the label of murder victim’s family does not apply to people whose loved one is killed by the state.
Although they bear the brunt of the death penalty, such families are often overlooked. In the official narrative of capital punishment, after all, the label of murder victim’s family does not apply to people whose loved one is killed by the state. Yet the loved ones of the men who have been killed in Terre Haute share a particular trauma that few can understand. Unlike other witnesses, attending an execution for them means abiding by a coercive script that demands polite complicity in their loved one’s premeditated murder.
One of the few family members who has spoken publicly about the federal executions is Lisa Brown, the mother of Bernard’s co-defendant, Christopher Vialva. After Brown attended her son’s execution in September, she contacted Hall’s family, hoping to help them navigate a dehumanizing process that seemed designed to rob them of their right to grieve. When Brown received Vialva’s death certificate from the funeral home in Terre Haute, she was dismayed to see her name misspelled. But she also felt a sense of validation: Next to the line reading “Manner of Death,” the document said “Homicide.”
For Brown and Matthews, the relentless pace of the executions has been retraumatizing. The Trump administration intends to kill three more people in the new year, although a district judge ruled on Christmas Eve that the execution date for Lisa Montgomery had been illegally set. In the meantime, an explosion in Covid-19 cases at the penitentiary in Terre Haute has spread to death row, sickening both Dustin Higgs and Corey Johnson, the other two people scheduled to die before Trump leaves office. The outbreak is barring their families from visiting the men in their final days.
Knowing the trauma that confronts other families has made Brown and Matthews want to speak louder against the executions. Perhaps even more important, they want people to understand that their loved ones were not only remorseful for their crimes, they were so much more than the violence they committed decades ago. “I think we have to start yelling about it, because to me what’s happening is we’re waiting until these guys get a date,” Matthews said. “And then the time moves so fast.”
On December 10, the day after I met Matthews in Milwaukee, I arrived at the FCC Terre Haute Training Center just before 4:30 p.m. The white, one-story building behind a split-rail fence sits just north of the penitentiary grounds on State Road 63. As usual, two white vans were parked in front of the portico entrance, waiting to bring media witnesses to the death chamber.
It was the ninth time that reporters had gathered at the makeshift media center. The routine was the same as always, save for an added temperature check: first upon pulling into the parking lot and then at the door of the building. Inside, the Bureau of Prisons offered disposable masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. In a wood-paneled ballroom, media witnesses sat at individual tables with their names printed on paper cardstock.
Like any government agency, the BOP is deliberate in what it allows people to see. Non-witnessing reporters are kept strictly separate from those approved to view the execution, for reasons that remain unclear. The sole exception is when victims’ families wish to give a statement to the press, in which case all are welcome. In his briefing that day, BOP spokesperson Scott Taylor revealed that the families of Stacie and Todd Bagley would be addressing the press later that night.
Bernard’s execution was scheduled for 6 p.m. Outside the media center, many still held out hope that Bernard would be spared. “I’m praying for a miracle!” Matthews wrote in a text message. In emails, Bernard’s neighbors on death row described him as good-natured and well-liked. “It will be heartbreaking if they kill Bernard, he don’t belong here by no stretch of the imagination,” one man wrote. Another said he was “cautiously optimistic that things will go in my friend Brandon’s favor. Perhaps President Trump will show an uncharacteristic display of humanity on this occasion. I really pray that he does.”
The only thing standing in the way of the execution was a petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, which argued that Bernard had been improperly denied a chance to present a critical piece of evidence that could have led jurors to spare his life: a pair of documents withheld by federal prosecutors at trial, which further confirmed that Bernard was a follower among the teenagers who carjacked and killed the Bagleys. The evidence had not emerged until 2018; the courts had not seen fit to grant lawyers a hearing.
The justices had not yet ruled when, just before 7 p.m., media witnesses were told to get ready to board the vans. At the Dollar General across from the penitentiary, where protesters hold vigils on execution nights, a larger-than-usual group of demonstrators held signs and sought updates on Twitter. At 7:09 p.m., an account run by Bernard’s advocates tweeted that he was being transported to the execution chamber, adding, “Still no word from SCOTUS.”
In the end, the execution would go mostly like the others. At 8:30 p.m., in a 6-3 decision, the justices ruled against Bernard. As the execution commenced, activists tolled a loud bell outside the Dollar General, offering prayers for Bernard and the Bagleys alike. Less than an hour later, the BOP sent out the email signaling that the deed was done: “Please report back to the Media Center at this time if you choose to.” Bernard had been pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m.
Media witnesses would later describe Bernard as strikingly calm. His last words included an apology to his victims. “I’m sorry,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “That’s the only words I can say that captures how I feel now and how I felt that day.” In the media center, BOP officials distributed large photographs of the Bagleys and a summary of the crime.
It was close to 10 p.m. when a large group of people were escorted into the media center by a BOP employee. In the front was Georgia Bagley, Todd Bagley’s mother, wearing a surgical mask and navy blue T-shirt with a photo of her son and his wife. Two men helped her along as she walked to the wooden podium at the front of the room.
Bagley read from prepared remarks. She thanked the Trump administration for carrying out the execution. “Without this process, my family and I would not have the closure we need to move on in life,” she said. “Please remember that the lives of family and friends were shattered, and we all have grieved for 21 years waiting for justice to finally be served.”
Then she stopped reading. She became emotional. “The apology and the remorse that was shown to the family and the fact that they regretted their acts at that time helped very much to heal my heart,” she said, apparently referring to both Vialva and Bernard. “And I can truly say I forgive them.”
None of the family members of the 10 men killed by the Trump administration this year has been invited by the BOP to speak to the press. While some states allow representatives from both sides to speak following an execution, no one on the side of the condemned is allowed inside the BOP’s media center at all.
In Terre Haute, the only person who has publicly addressed reporters on the day of their loved one’s execution is Brown, who spoke at a press conference held by activists outside the Dollar General. Unlike victims’ families, whose travel and lodging are paid for by the Trump administration, Brown got no assistance from the government to make her final trip to Terre Haute. She relied on donations from her congregation, her son’s co-defendants, and his friends on death row.
The financial burden goes beyond the cost of travel. After Hall got his date, Matthews quit her job, knowing that she would not be able to take all the time off necessary for her final visits. “I just told them I had personal things going on,” she said. Other family members were saddled with costly logistical problems. Although the government does cover the cost of a suit and casket for the funeral, Hall’s family was initially told that neither was available, delaying Hall’s burial in violation of his Muslim faith. When his body was finally shipped from Terre Haute to Texas, the state where he was convicted, Hall’s family had to pay another funeral home to bring him to Louisiana for his funeral.
For Matthews, the decision to witness Hall’s execution was painful but straightforward. “He was like, ‘So they gave me this paper, and they’re asking me who do I want to come and watch them kill me,’” she said. He didn’t want to place that burden on her, but “I said, ‘To these people, it’s their job. They think they’re doing what they have to do. It’s a paycheck. Your life means nothing. That’s the energy that’s going to be around you.’”
Witnesses have described an execution as both bizarre and horrifying — an “unsettling mashup of bureaucracy and barbarism,” as a media colleague once described it. For Matthews, who was accompanied by Hall’s nephew, best friend, and spiritual adviser that day, it was not only the horror of seeing Hall die. There was no way to prepare for the casual cruelty that surrounded the execution; the forced pleasantries and small talk with the people who were about to take his life.
On November 19, Matthews drove to the Vigo County Sheriff’s Office, where she was to be picked up at 3:30 p.m. “It was just crazy,” she said. “You’re standing there to load onto this van, because these people have said that the person you love, your loved one, is unsavable — they’re so horrible that we’re going to kill them. But we’re going to come pick you up. And while you’re standing there, we’re going to be talking about the news … talking about the weather, laugh and joke.”
Riding toward the penitentiary, the prison chaplain chatted with her. “So, how do you know Orlando? And how long have you known him? Are you from the state?” She was told the BOP’s crisis management team would assist her with anything she needed. “They said, ‘Is there anything we can do for you?’ And I said, ‘You can let him go.’ ‘Oh, unfortunately we’re not the people who make that decision.’”
Shortly after 4 p.m., a D.C. district judge granted a temporary stay of execution. Hall had tried to prepare Matthews for this possibility, warning her that it would not ultimately stop the execution. Still, when the BOP staffers informed her of the stay, she found herself feeling a tinge of hope.
The court set out a briefing schedule for lawyers on both sides. The last filings were due at 9:45 p.m. While media witnesses left the penitentiary grounds for a few hours, Matthews and her group stayed inside, eating vending machine snacks in what appeared to be a classroom. Around 10 p.m., she could smell hot food being delivered for the staff. Shortly afterward, when a BOP official said it was time to get back in the van, Matthews paused and looked at Hall’s best friend. “I was like, ‘Maybe if we refuse to go,’” she said, but her voice trailed off.
The brick building that houses the execution chamber is in the very back of the penitentiary grounds, right on the edge of the Wabash River. But it was pitch black by then, Matthews said; there was almost nothing to see. After getting out of the van, she was struck by how many people were there. “They’re just standing there in their suits staring at you, watching you walk.” She heard a radio say something about “moving the inmate.” Then she entered the building.
Inside the small viewing area reserved for family, the shades were down. There was a bar to keep witnesses from getting too close to the window. “I sat off to the side, and then the curtain started coming up,” she said. She immediately saw Hall. “They got him on the table,” she started to say, but the memory became a short sob. “Oh my God.”
An official “reached over and snatched his mask off his face,” she said. Hall’s spiritual adviser would later say he was unnerved by the gesture, which struck him as spiteful. But Matthews was glad to see Hall’s face. “He just gave us a look like, ‘Well.’” He mouthed “I love you.” She started to say it back but realized he would not be able to see her words. She took off her homemade mask with Hall’s picture on it, which read “No Fear. Trust God.” Hall gave a prayer for his last words, and then they started the lethal injection. He was pronounced dead at 11:47 p.m.
Matthews was preparing to drive to Indianapolis later that night when the media witnesses returned from the death chamber. The BOP provided a statement from Pearl René, the sister of Hall’s victim. “Today marks the end of a very long and painful chapter in our lives,” René said. But it was only the end of the legal process. “The execution of Orlando Hall will never stop the suffering we continue to endure,” she went on. “Please pray for our family as well as his.”
On December 11, the Trump administration carried out its final execution of the year. As a small group of activists struggled to light candles under a cold rain, inside the death chamber, Alfred Bourgeois declared his innocence, then took 28 minutes to die. It was unlike Bernard’s death the night before or any of the previous executions. “If Alfred Bourgeois was suffering that night,” one media witness wrote, “he suffered for a long time.”
After returning home from Terre Haute, I spoke to Hall’s oldest son, 35-year-old Eric Hampton. “It’s no secret he has these children by all these different women,” Matthews told me about Hall’s six adult kids. “But if you see or interact with his children, you would swear they have been raised in the same house. You can visibly see the love between them. And that’s because of what he instilled in them about the importance of family and them being there for each other.”
Unlike his younger siblings, Hampton could remember when Hall went to death row. He lived with his grandparents in Arkansas rather than his mom, “so my dad played a huge part of my life.” He vividly recalled one of the last things they did together before Hall’s arrest. He was about 10 years old; they went to see “The Lion King” at a movie theater in Pine Bluff.
Hall’s crime and conviction were traumatic for Hampton. He remembers seeing glimpses of the news coverage on TV, spotting his dad and his co-defendants covering their faces with their shirts. Death threats arrived regularly at his grandparents’ house. It got so bad they had to move. At school, he started getting into fights. Friends and family members distanced themselves from him. Others said he would turn out just like his dad.
Hampton eventually went into therapy — and his grandparents made sure to keep nurturing his relationship with his dad. The family drove from Arkansas to Indiana roughly twice a year, planning visits to coincide with breaks from school. As Hampton grew older, he looked to his father for guidance: with school, with relationships, and eventually with his own kids, the oldest of whom he named Orlando.
Like most people who go to prison at a young age, Hall seemed to calm down the older he got. For the last 10 years, Hampton said, he never saw his father get mad. “He was about peace. He was about understanding, kindness, forgiveness, and always giving people the benefit of the doubt,” Hampton said. When Hampton graduated high school and got his commercial driver’s license, he did so with his father in mind. “He always pushed me to do something better,” he said.
Like Matthews, Hampton found out about his father’s execution date in a phone call. “I broke down immediately,” he said. “I couldn’t talk.” He made plans to go to Terre Haute as soon as possible. He also tried to figure out how to tell his own children. “I wanted to tell them before the newspapers,” he said. “Because I knew they would get a one-sided story.” Nobody would argue that what Hall had done was acceptable, he said. But he wanted his children to understand who their grandfather was now.
Hampton was on the ground in Terre Haute, waiting for updates, when he spoke to his father for the last time. A stay had been granted, Hall told him, but it was not likely to last. Hall gave him messages to share with the rest of the family, telling people he loved them. Hampton recorded the call so that he would not forget. For the next several hours, he looked for updates on Twitter. “And the last tweet that I remember seeing [said] they will get everybody loaded to the van and taken to the death chamber. And that’s how I knew.”
The next morning, Hampton went to the funeral home to carry out one of his father’s last wishes. With his half-brother Orlando Jr., and under the direction of Imam Yusuf Ahmed Nur, his father’s spiritual adviser, he washed his father’s body from head to toe. It was the first time he’d touched his father in more than 25 years.
Matthews had planned to join them, but she was told only three people could enter the room in the funeral home. She would not touch Hall until his body arrived in Louisiana for his wake. She rubbed his head and touched his ears and hands, she said — “the most beautiful, horrible feeling in the world.”
With Christmas approaching, Hampton said, he was feeling his father’s absence. He has a message from his father that he listens to almost every day. “I want to hear his voice, you know?” He can hear his father telling him how proud he is, and “to continue to be the man that I am. And always stay active with my children’s lives. And when things get bad, remember what he taught me. And just know, that every day that I wake up … it’s a chance for me to get better than I was yesterday.”