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As part of revived federal death penalty, Christopher Vialva executed for Texas double murder

Vialva was the seventh man executed in the federal execution chamber this year after a 17-year hiatus of the federal death penalty. Texas, meanwhile, is expected to have a comparatively low number of state executions this year because of the pandemic.

Interior of execution chamber.

The U.S. government executed Christopher Andre Vialva on Thursday night for a 1999 Texas double murder.

Vialva’s death was scheduled to be the seventh federal execution this year after a push by President Donald Trump’s administration to restart the federal death penalty after a 17-year hiatus. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty nationally in 1976, only three men on federal death row were executed before 2020. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was executed in 2001, and two executions in 2001 and 2003 stemmed from Texas murders.

Vialva was pronounced dead at 6:46 p.m. Eastern, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. It was the first federal execution for a Texas case this year, and the 40-year-old was the first Black man killed in the 2020 federal executions, which are taking place during a pandemic. In Texas — the state that by far executes the most people — several executions have been taken off the calendar due to the new coronavirus, resulting in what is expected to be the lowest number of state executions in one year in nearly a quarter-century.

Vialva was convicted in the slaying and robbery of an Iowa couple when he was 19. He and others, including his co-defendant and fellow death row inmate, Brandon Bernard, carjacked Todd and Stacie Bagley on their way home from church, according to court records. The couple was kept in the trunk while the young men tried to pull money from the victims’ bank accounts and pawn a wedding ring. Eventually, Vialva shot both of the victims in the head while they were in the trunk, and Bernard set the car on fire, the records state.

The crime was deemed a federal crime, not a state one, because the killing occurred on a secluded part of the Fort Hood U.S. Army post in Killeen. This year, Fort Hood has been heavily scrutinized as at least nine soldiers have died in suicides, homicides and accidents.

The Trump administration aimed to restart federal executions last year, when it set five executions for December 2019 and January 2020 in cases in which men had been convicted of murdering children. The government planned to use pentobarbital, the same lethal drug Texas uses in its routinely held executions. Court fights over the lethal injection procedure and the drug’s potential painful effects delayed the executions, but the first federal execution since 2003 took place in July in Terre Haute, Indiana.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in a 2019 statement that “we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Four of the five men scheduled for execution in December and January were executed in July and August, with the exception of Alfred Bourgeois, whose case is paused while courts assess whether he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution. Bourgeois was convicted of killing his 2-year-old daughter on the Corpus Christi naval base in 2002. Concerns over the execution of inmates who are potentially intellectually disabled have risen in recent years, and Texas has been a major player as the Supreme Court has twice slammed its method of determining such a disability. At least seven Texas death row inmates have been resentenced to life in prison since the high court’s first ruling against Texas in 2017.

In late July, after three federal executions had taken place that month, the Justice Department announced two more scheduled for September unrelated to crimes against children, including Vialva’s. William LeCroy, convicted of the rape and murder of a woman during a Georgia home invasion, was executed Tuesday.

In a video released this month, Vialva pleaded for a stop to his execution based on what he deemed an unfair appeals process in federal death penalty cases, racial disparities on death row and his young age at the time of his crime.

“I’m not making this plea as an innocent man, but I am a changed and redeemed man,” Vialva said in a YouTube video, wearing thick-framed glasses, a knitted yarmulke and a prayer shawl over his prison clothes. “I committed a great wrong when I was a lost kid and took two precious lives from this world. … I’m not the stupid kid I was the day I made the most desperate and tragic decision of my life.”

More than 46% of the 56 people on federal death row are Black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, while Black people make up about 13% of the U.S. population. Texas shows similar disparities, with 44% of 209 death row inmates being Black, while the state’s Black population is about 12%.

Vialva and his attorneys had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt his execution because of outstanding questions about whether federal executions need to be set by a court or can be set by the U.S. attorney general, as was the case in recent executions. An appeal argued that because Vialva’s case stems from Texas, it should follow the state’s execution-setting rules. Texas executions are set by the trial courts and must be scheduled at least 91 days in advance to allow time for late appeals and petitions for clemency, in which the parole board and governor may decide to delay the execution or reduce a death row inmate’s sentence to life in prison.

Vialva’s execution date was set by the DOJ, not the federal trial court. The trial court later rejected the argument that it needed to set the date for a federal execution, but out of caution, on Sept. 11 it ordered the Thursday execution. Susan Otto, Vialva’s attorney, said that didn’t meet the 91-day requirement set in Texas. An appeals court also ruled against Vialva. Otto said the concern raised multiple uncertainties on how the federal death penalty is meant to be carried out. She said she didn’t know if Trump “even knows that Mr. Vialva exists.”

“Instead of [the DOJ] saying, ‘All the appeals have concluded, we request an execution set’ ... we received 55 days notice, if you want to call it notice. It was a letter handed from the warden to Mr. Vialva,” Otto said Wednesday. “This gave us very, very little time to put together our clemency petition.”

In Texas, there have been three executions at the death chamber in Huntsville this year. All but one scheduled during the pandemic have been taken off the calendar. Since Texas executions need to be scheduled 91 days in advance and the next scheduled date is in January, it is unlikely another will take place this year.

The last time three or fewer Texas executions took place in a year was in 1996, according to data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s, 570 people have been executed in Texas.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this story misstated when Christopher Andre Vialva was pronounced dead. It was 6:46 p.m. Eastern, not 7:46 p.m.

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