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How A Perpetrator's Race And Age Factor Into Who Is Executed

NOEL KING, HOST:

What role do race and age play in who gets the death penalty? The Justice Department plans to execute Christopher Vialva on September 24. He's a Black man who murdered two white people when he was a teenager. His lawyers say he is characteristic of most inmates on federal death row, and that's a problem. Here's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: 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.

Twenty years after he was convicted of that brutal crime, Vialva is scheduled to face lethal injection. Susan Otto is his lawyer.

SUSAN OTTO: He's Black. He committed his crime before his brain was fully developed. He's now 40 years old. He's been on death row for longer than he was alive in the free world.

JOHNSON: Vialva is not claiming he's innocent. Instead, his case resembles most of those that end in the death house in Indiana. Like Vialva, who was 19 when he killed the Bagleys, 1 in 4 of the men on federal death row committed their crimes before they reached the age of 21. And of the 57 people on the row, more than half are people of color. Sam Spital is director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

SAM SPITAL: 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.

JOHNSON: Spital says the race of the victim also matters a lot. Defendants who kill white people are 17 times more likely to be executed. He says those disparities exist in both the state system and the federal system.

SPITAL: This is a prime example of how the federal death penalty is replicating all of the unconstitutional and discriminatory flaws in the state system.

JOHNSON: Susan Otto says 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 remembers her reaction.

OTTO: I was absolutely stunned when I started reviewing the records. And the things that I saw that had gone wrong were shocking to me.

JOHNSON: Otto says the problems began with Vialva's lawyers back at the time of trial.

OTTO: 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.

JOHNSON: 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. That's what Vialva's new lawyers call a clear conflict of interest. When they protested years later to the trial judge, Judge Smith, he rejected their appeal and limited the legal arguments they could make to higher courts.

OTTO: Couple of years after that, we discovered that Judge Smith, in 1998 and continuing forward, had been suffering under some rather acute symptoms of alcoholism.

JOHNSON: The judge was suspended from cases for a year, but appeals courts weren't convinced that the judge's problems played any role in the Vialva case. That leaves him with no options.

OTTO: I tell you that this case has shaken my faith in some of the principles that I have believed in and practiced.

JOHNSON: Former prosecutor Cully Stimson says his sympathy goes out to victims of these crimes and their families.

CULLY STIMSON: It's justice delayed, but it's about time.

JOHNSON: Stimson is a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He points 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.

STIMSON: 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.

JOHNSON: Stimson says capital punishment is reserved for a tiny fraction of defendants until Congress decides otherwise. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.