Killeen: Men convicted in fiery deaths of pastor, wife now face execution

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KILLEEN, Texas (KWTX) Thursday's order by Attorney General William Barr clearing the way for the federal government to execute condemned prisoners means that two area men convicted of the fiery murders of a pastor and his wife 20 years ago are back on track for a trip to the federal death chamber.

No federal executions have taken place in the U.S. since 2003. (CNN/Pool)

Christopher Andre Vialva, 39, and Brandon Bernard, 38, were sentenced to death in Waco's federal district court, for the June 20, 1999 murders of Iowa pastor Todd Bagley and his wife Stacey Bagley.

Both men currently are held on death row at the federal prison in Terra Haute, Ind., where all federal death row prisoners are held.

"It certainly re-engages the issue," Daryl Fields, public information officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office, in San Antonio, said Friday by telephone.

The order applies to any federal court sentence of death, but there was a question Friday if the order would also apply to death penalties imposed by military courts martial, such as in the case of Fort Hood mass killer Nidal Malik Hasan.

"It hasn't gotten down here yet," Christopher Haug, media spokesman for III Corps and Ft. Hood said Friday.

"We'll (Army lawyers) will have to review it and see if it applies to cases tried under UCMJ (the Uniform Code of Military Justice)," Haug said.

The military has not carried out an execution since 1961.

Todd Bagley died of a gunshot, but his wife Stacy, who also had been shot, died of smoke inhalation, which means she was alive in the trunk of the couple’s car when Bernard, in an effort to hide evidence, set the vehicle on fire.

The trial was held in federal court because the crime happened on Fort Hood.

Thursday Barr directed the Justice Department to adopt a new rule for carrying out the death penalty, which would restore executions in the federal system for the first time in 16 years.

"We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system," Barr said.

"The question is, how fast can they do it," Waco attorney Stan Schwieger said.

Schweiger said Barr's order is just the first step in a very long and detailed process that has to play out before executions could actually begin.

"There is an administrative procedure that has to take place that involves publication in the Federal Registry and an opportunity for people to make comments and all of that has to happen before any executions could begin.

"It's just the first step in a very long procedure and I hope they don't succeed," Schwieger said.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, immediately upon Barr's order, set execution dates for five men on federal death row, all of whom already have exhausted their appeals and all of whom were convicted of murdering children in especially violent crimes.

Four of the five also killed adult victims.

Those executions are to be carried out in December and January, Barr's order said.

KWTX contacted the Bureau of Prisons to learn if execution dates for either man convicted here had been set but has not yet received a reply.

Both Vialva and Bernard filed federal appeals, saying the judge who oversaw their trials was not competent to do so.

But in September 2018, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court denied the appeal from two Killeen former gang members.

Since the Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in the mid-1970s, after an earlier ruling had declared its application unconstitutional, the federal government has executed only three inmates, including Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

The last federal execution was March 18, 2003 when inmate Louis Jones, Jr., 44, put to death after his conviction of rape resulting in death and murder in federal district court in Lubbock in 1999.

He was a former soldier and was found guilty in the beating death of USAF Pvt. Tracie Joy McBride, 18, from San Angelo's Goodfellow Air Force Base.