Local gang members convicted of kidnapping, killing couple lose appeal

Published: Sep. 21, 2018 at 3:32 PM CDT
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The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has denied an appeal from two Killeen gang members who were sentenced to die for killing married couple on Fort Hood and trying to hide the crime by burning the couple’s car with the victims inside.

Brandon Bernard, of Killeen, who was 18 at the time of the murders, and co-defendant Christopher Vialva, also of Killeen, both were convicted of the brutal June 1999 killings of husband and wife Todd and Stacie Bagley, both of whom were shot while stuffed inside the trunk of their car.

Todd Bagley died of the gunshot but his wife Stacy died of smoke inhalation, which means she was alive when Bernard, in an effort to hide evidence, set the car aflame.

The Bagleys were visiting in Killeen from Iowa, where they served as youth pastors at a church.

Testimony showed Vialva masterminded the couple's kidnapping during a carjacking and, with three others involved including Bernard, spent about six hours driving around Bell County with the young couple locked in the trunk while the quartet took turns trying to use the Bagley's ATM cards.

Eventually Vialva drove the car to a secluded area of Fort Hood, opened the trunk and after Stacie Bagley told him God loved him, he cursed at her and shot her in the head with a .40 caliber Glock semi-automatic pistol.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin rejected their appeals in February and the two filed for relief from the Fifth Circuit, citing their claim that the judge that presided over their trial was incapable of rendering a fair decision because he was impaired and wasn’t fit to serve.

The judge, now retired U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith, Jr., presided over the initial trial and imposed the death sentence after conviction.

Lawyers for Bernard and Vialva, as part of their pleading, state Smith committed several errors during the trial, including the initial Habeas Corpus proceedings, but primarily it complains of Smith’s incompetence.

Lawyers support their argument with a copy of a judicial council order during a misconduct proceeding which dealt with the council’s order that Smith not receive any new cases for one year and a later article from a magazine called Texas Lawyer that details the misconduct proceedings and how that led to Smith’s decision on Sept. 19, 2016, to retire after 32 years.

The Fifth Circuit, however, in its denial of certificates of appealability, stated there was no credible evidence that the procedural integrity of either the initial trial or the Habeas Corpus proceeding was compromised.

“The allegations offer no evidence – beyond gross speculation – that Judge Smith was, as Bernard and Vialva repeatedly assert ‘impaired’ or ‘unfit’ to oversee their 2000 trial and subsequent Habeas proceedings,” the court’s decision reads.

In federal capital murder cases, certificates of appealability are court documents that, in effect, give the defendant permission to appeal certain aspects of his trial and decisions made by the district judge during that trial.

Without COAs, the defense can't establish a record and has no grounds upon which to appeal further.

The Fifth Circuit’s decision went on to say: “Judge Smith’s unrelated misconduct does not constitute a defect in the integrity of Bernard’s and Vialva’s hearing proceedings

“To hold otherwise would implicate every one of Judge Smith’s decisions for an undetermined period of time nearly twenty years ago and would justify circumventing the second-or-successive limitations in countless cases.

“Bernard’s and Vialva’s applications for certificates of appealability are denied.”

On the night of the murders, the suspects were detained at the scene after a Nolanville police officer was sent to the area to check out an unknown fire.

The killers, while trying to drive away from the scene, ended up stuck in a muddy ditch and still were there when police arrived.

They were detained initially for questioning in connection with the fire but were arrested at the scene after firefighters found the badly burned bodies in the car trunk.

The case went federal instead of through the state district courts because the crime was committed on Fort Hood.

The jury returned a guilty verdict and death sentence for Vialva in very short order, but did not reach a verdict on Bernard until the next day.

Vialva was sentenced to death for the carjacking that resulted in death, the murder of Todd Bagley and for the conspiracy to commit murder or attempted murder in the death of Stacie Bagley.

Bernard was sentenced to death for the murder of Stacie Bagley.