U.S. to execute first Black man since resumption of federal death penalty

The sun sets on the Federal Corrections Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, U.S. May 22, 2019. (REUTERS/Bryan Woolston)

The U.S. government plans on Thursday to execute Christopher Vialva, a convicted murderer and the first Black man to face the federal death penalty since the punishment was resumed this summer after a 17-year hiatus.

Vialva was 19 years old when he and fellow members of a gang in Killeen, Texas, killed Todd and Stacie Bagley, white married Christian youth ministers from Iowa, on the Fort Hood army base in 1999.

The Department of Justice says it will kill Vialva, 40, using lethal injections of pentobarbital, a barbiturate, at 6 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT) at its execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, the sixth federal execution this year after the hiatus and the second this week.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Vialva’s application for a stay on Thursday.

Vialva’s execution comes as the nation grapples with racial disparities in the criminal justice system, with daily protests occurring in U.S. cities against police brutality against Black people.

Of the 56 people on federal death row, 26, or 46%, are Black, and 22, or 39%, are white, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a non-profit organization based in Washington. Black people make up only 13% of the U.S. population.

DPIC published a report this month concluding that racial bias persists in the U.S. system of capital punishment. The report said that the killers of white people were more likely to face the death penalty than the killers of Black people, and a study in North Carolina found that qualified Black jurors were struck from juries at more than twice the rate of qualified white jurors.

At Vialva’s trial in the U.S. District Court for Western Texas in 2000, a jury of 11 white people and one Black person found him and a Black accomplice, Brandon Bernard, guilty of carjacking and murder, and voted for them to receive the death penalty. Bernard’s execution date has not been set.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said that the teenaged Vialva was unfairly tried as an adult and circulated a video of Vialva this month speaking from prison about racial disparities.

“The death penalty has been used disproportionately against Black people for decades,” Vialva says in the video. “People are unaware that many of us here were arrested before we were old enough to drink.”

According to court records, Vialva and his accomplices were looking for someone to rob when they found Todd Bagley using a payphone at a convenience store, and he agreed to give them a ride in his car. In the back seat, Vialva pulled out a gun and ordered Bagley and his wife to get into the car’s trunk.

After forcing Bagley to disclose his PIN, Vialva withdrew cash from Bagley’s account at an ATM, though there was less than $100 on deposit. He used the cash to buy fast food and cigarettes, among other items. During the several hours they spent in the trunk, the Bagleys could be heard telling their kidnappers to embrace Christianity.

Eventually, Vialva parked the car in an isolated part of Fort Hood, opened the trunk and shot both Bagleys in the head, killing Todd and rendering Stacie unconscious. Bernard then set the car on fire, and an autopsy showed that she died from smoke inhalation.

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