A Black man is set to be executed by the federal government Thursday for a crime he committed at 19, despite what his lawyer said was a case where prosecutors used inflammatory racial stereotypes during the trial to land her client on death row.
Christopher Vialva, 40, was scheduled to be the first Black inmate put to death since the Trump administration’s revival of federal executions earlier this year. Vialva was sentenced to death in the 1999 Texas killing of Todd and Stacie Bagley, a white couple who were youth ministers. There were 11 white jurors and one black juror in 2000 federal trial, Vialva’s lawyer, Susan Otto said.
Prosecutors portrayed Vialva “as if he were the leader of a violent and well-organized street gang,” Otto said.
“Of course in the year 2000, the theme of the super predator, that there were these kids that just marauded through our communities, wreaking havoc, was a very powerful and very convincing narrative,” she said.
Otto said there was no evidence Vialva was a leader or real member of the so-called 212 PIRU Bloods gang. She said he and his friends encountered the couple after Vialva was kicked out of his mother’s home and having nowhere to go, the group made a plan to rob someone.
“This is a product of a person, a child, with very disorganized thinking, in a full-on panic, surrounded by a bunch of other kids whose ideas are just as bad as his,” she said.
Otto said it was a very convincing narrative to frame to the jury that Vialva and Brandon Bernard, his codefendant, who was also Black, were part of a violent gang.
“I think it had a very strong impact on the jury’s decision to conclude that Christopher was a mad dog that needed to be put down,” she said. “I think as time has proven, nothing could be further from the truth.”
Vialva has “overwhelming remorse” for his actions and studies the Messianic faith, Otto said, pointing to his growth as a person during his time in prison.
Otto also said Vialva was developmentally about three years younger at the time of the killings and then when she met him in 2003 he was still struggling to read.
She is calling on Trump to grant him clemency and commute his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“Christopher is simply asking him to spare his life,” she said.
More than 46 percent of the 56 inmates currently on federal death row are Black, while Black people make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population.
In a recent op-ed, Jason Chein, a professor of psychology at Temple University, said Vialva’s impending execution ignores “the last 20-plus years of research has taught us about the developing brains of teenagers and adolescents.”
“Science suggests that no person of this age should be eligible for capital punishment,” he wrote.
“This is a really terrible thing that this individual has been accused of and seems to be admitting guilt to and was convicted of,” Chein said told NBC News Thursday, but “It’s due time for us to really look closely at whether capital punishment can be appropriate for someone who hasn’t reached the age of full maturity in their brain, and I’d argue it can’t.”
Chein said that while a 19-year-old knows the difference rationally between right and wrong, study after study has shown when you add either emotional arousal or social conditions that change the way the brain makes decisions, “it looks like the brain of a younger individual rather than that of a fully matured adult.”
“The way their brain processes information in those situations tells us that they don’t yet have the full adult capacity as they’re making those decisions,” he said.
According to the Justice Department, Todd and Stacie Bagley, were killed in Fort Hood, Texas, in 1999 after agreeing to give Vialva and two of his friends a ride in their car. Vialva pulled out a gun, forced the couple into the trunk and the group of teenagers drove around for a few hours, stopping to attempt to withdraw money from Bagley’s bank account and pawn Stacie’s ring, according to the DOJ. Vialva eventually parked at the site of the Fort Hood military reservation and shot the couple while another man set the car on fire, according to the department.
The Trump administration restarted federal executions in July after a 17-year pause, beginning with six at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to request for comment.