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System Stacked Against Condemned Inmate, Other Black Defendants, Lawyers Say

Demonstrators gathered across from the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., to protest the death penalty. Another execution is scheduled for Thursday.
Demonstrators gathered across from the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., to protest the death penalty. Another execution is scheduled for Thursday.

In 1999, Christopher Vialva hitched a ride with a married couple visiting West Texas for a church revival meeting.

Authorities later found the bodies of Todd and Stacie Bagley in the trunk of their car. Todd Bagley died of a gunshot wound. Stacie Bagley died of smoke inhalation after the car was set on fire.

On Thursday, 20 years after he was convicted of that brutal crime, Vialva is scheduled to face lethal injection. His case stands out only because he's like most inmates on federal death row: a Black man who murdered white people, when he was very young.

"He's Black; he committed his crime before his brain was fully developed," said his lawyer, Susan Otto, the federal public defender for the Western District of Oklahoma. "He's now 40 years old. He's been on death row for longer than he was alive in the free world."

Vialva is not claiming he's innocent. In a recent video, he said he regretted his actions.

"People make bad decisions in life, but they are still people," Vialva said. "In fact, making bad decisions is a universally human trait."

Like Vialva, who was 19 when he killed the Bagleys, one in four of the men on federal death row committed their crimes before they reached the age of 21. And, of the 57 people on death row, more than half are people of color, according to a new study by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Sam Spital, director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said racism infects every stage of the capital punishment process.

"There have been over 500 cases between 1988 and now where the attorney general of the United States authorized federal prosecutors to seek death and in over two-thirds of those cases, the defendant was either Black or Latinx and in only about a quarter of the cases was the defendant white," Spital said.

Spital said the race of the victim also matters a lot: defendants who kill white people are 17 times more likely to be executed.

"This is a prime example of how the federal death penalty is replicating all the same unconstitutional and discriminatory flaws in the state system," he said.

Otto said she once believed the federal system, which guarantees multiple lawyers for the accused, represented a gold standard. Then, she took on the Vialva case.

When Otto got his case file, in 2003, she remembered her reaction.

The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind. A wave of federal executions by the Trump administration have resumed after a 17-year hiatus.
Michael Conroy / AP
The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind. A wave of federal executions by the Trump administration have resumed after a 17-year hiatus.

"I was absolutely stunned, when I started reviewing the records, and the things that I saw that had gone wrong were shocking to me," she said.

Otto said the problems began with Vialva's lawyers back at the time of the trial.

The rules are set up to ensure that people who are charged with federal capital crimes receive highly qualified counsel. One of them has to be what's called "learned in the law."

The "learned" counsel in Vialva's case was applying for a job at the time — in the same office as the people trying to put Vialva to death. Later, that man went on to win the job as a federal prosecutor in Texas.

Vialva's new lawyers call that a clear conflict of interest.

When they protested, years later, to the trial judge, he rejected their appeal and limited the legal arguments they could make to higher courts. Eventually, the new legal team discovered that the trial judge had suffered acute symptoms of alcoholism and had made "inappropriate and unwanted" sexual advances to a court employee, resulting in his suspension from hearing new cases for a year.

But appeals courts weren't convinced that the judge's problems played any role in the Vialva case. That left Vialva with no options and on track for execution.

"I tell you that this case has shaken my faith in some of the principles I have believed in and practiced," Otto said.

NPR reached out to friends and relatives of the Bagleys but did not get a response in time for publication. Families of murder victims are divided on the issue of capital punishment, even among themselves, said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers.

Former prosecutor Charles "Cully" Stimson says his sympathy goes out to the victims of these crimes and their families.

"It's justice delayed, but it's about time," said Stimson, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has written books about crime and punishment.

Stimson pointed out that federal prosecutors who seek capital punishment undergo multiple layers of review inside the Justice Department, and that most defendants get access to ethical and competent lawyers once they reach the courts.

"Until Congress eliminates the death penalty for select crimes and states abolish it, we're going to have it for a small number of cases where the punishment is deserved in the eyes of many juries," he said.

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