Feds put first Black inmate to death since execution restart

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TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — A man who killed a religious couple visiting Texas from Iowa was executed Thursday, the first Black inmate put to death as part of the Trump administration’s resumption of federal executions.

Christopher Vialva, 40, was pronounced dead shortly before 7 p.m. EDT after receiving a lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

In a last statement, Vialva asked God to comfort the families of the couple he had killed, saying, “Father … heal their hearts with grace and love.” His final words were: “I’m ready, Father.”

There was some confusion within the Bureau of Prisons about the official time of death. Inside the chamber, the time of death was announced as 6:42 p.m., but the agency later said the official time of death was actually 6:46 p.m.

He was 19 years old in 1999 when he shot Todd and Stacie Bagley and burned them in the trunk of their car. Vialva’s lawyer, Susan Otto, has said race played a role in landing her client on death row for slaying the white couple.

Vialva was the seventh federal execution since July and the second this week. Five of the first six were white, a move critics argue was a political calculation to avoid uproar. The sixth was Navajo.

“I believe when someone deliberately takes the life of another, they suffer the consequences for their actions, Todd Bagley’s mother, Georgia, wrote in a statement released after the execution.

In the video statement released his lawyers released Thursday, Vialva expressed regret for what he’d done and said he was a changed man.

“I committed a grave wrong when I was a lost kid and took two precious lives from this world,” he said. “Every day, I wish I could right this wrong.”

Vialva’s mother, Lisa Brown, spoke at an anti-death penalty rally Thursday morning across from the prison where her son was later put to death.

“This is the first venue I’ve had in which I could say to Todd and Stacie’s family, I am so sorry for your loss,” said Brown, who was expected to witness her son’s execution.

“Christopher’s mother had the opportunity to visit hi for the past 21 years,” she wrote. “We have had to wait for 21 years for justice and closure. We cannot be with our children for visits or to see them on holidays. We were denied that privilige,” Bagley’s mother wrote.

Federal authorities executed just three prisoners in the previous 56 years. Death penalty foes accuse President Donald Trump of restarting them to help stake a claim as the law-and-order candidate.

Otto said one Black juror and 11 white jurors recommended the death sentence in 2000 after prosecutors told them Vialva led a Black gang faction in Killeen, Texas, and killed to boost his gang status. That claim, Otto said, was false and only served to conjure up menacing stereotypes.

“It played right into the narrative that he was a dangerous Black thug who killed these lovely white people. And they were lovely,” Otto said in a recent phone interview.

According to court filings, the Bagleys were on their way home from a Sunday worship service during a visit to Texas when Vialva and his teenage accomplices asked them for a lift after they stopped at a convenience store — planning all along to rob the couple. After the Bagleys agreed and began driving away, Vialva pulled out a gun and told the couple: “Plans have changed.”

After stealing their money, jewelry and ATM card, the teens locked the Bagleys in the trunk of their car as they drove around for hours trying to withdraw money from ATMs and seeking to pawn Stacie Bagley’s wedding ring. The Bagleys pleaded for their lives from the trunk.

The teens eventually pulled to the side of the road and poured lighter fluid inside the car. As they did, the Bagleys sang “Jesus loves us” in the trunk. Vialva, the oldest of the group, donned a ski mask, opened the trunk and shot the Bagleys in the head. Stacie Bagley, prosecutors said at trial, was still alive as flames engulfed the car.

Questions about racial bias in the criminal justice system have been front and center since protests erupted across the country following the death of George Floyd after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on the handcuffed Black man’s neck for several minutes.

report this month by the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center said Black people remain overrepresented on death rows and that Black people who kill white people are far more likely to be sentenced to death than white people who kill Black people.

Of the 56 inmates currently on federal death row, 26 — or nearly 50% — are Black, according to center data updated Wednesday; 22, or nearly 40%, are white and seven, around 12% were Latino. There is one Asian on federal death row. Black people make up only about 13% of the population.

Otto said Vialva’s lawyers during the trial, the sentencing phase and in an initial appeal didn’t appear to raise objections about the racial composition of the jury or the characterization of Vialva as a Black gang leader. That effectively barred subsequent lawyers from raising the issue of racial bias in higher court appeals.

His current legal team instead stressed Vialva’s level of mental development at the time of the killings. Otto said that Vialva was, developmentally, three or four years younger than his 19 years at the time of the killings and so for practical purposes was a juvenile at the time.

Otto says U.S. law doesn’t allow for judges to deem someone facing a possible death sentence to be technically a juvenile and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, something she says should change.

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