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US to execute first Black man since resumption of federal death penalty

admin | September 24, 2020

The US 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 using lethal injections of pentobarbital, a barbiturate, at 6 p.m. EDT (11pm Irish time) at its execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, the sixth federal execution this year after the hiatus and the second this week. Vialva, 40, had asked the US Supreme Court for a stay. However, on Thursday night, two hours before the execution was due to take place, the court denied the application for a stay.

His lawyers argue that the Federal Death Penalty Act requires the US Bureau of Prisons to obtain an execution warrant from a judge. The court’s conservative majority previously dismissed legal efforts to delay the five federal executions that have already taken place this year. Vialva’s execution comes as the nation grapples with racial disparities in the criminal justice system, with daily protests occurring in US 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 organisation based in Washington. Black people make up only 13% of the US population. DPIC published a report this month concluding that racial bias persists in the US 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 US 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 Begley 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 Begley and his wife to get into the car’s trunk. After forcing Begley to disclose his PIN, Vialva withdrew cash from Begley’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 Begleys 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 Begleys 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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