US gov’t steps up executions, kills 7th prisoner in 3 months

By Brian Williams
October 19, 2020
Lisa Brown, mother of Christopher Vialva, speaks at anti-death-penalty rally Sept. 24 at federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, hours before her son was executed. Poster shows his picture.
Joseph C. Garza/The Tribune-Star via APLisa Brown, mother of Christopher Vialva, speaks at anti-death-penalty rally Sept. 24 at federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, hours before her son was executed. Poster shows his picture.

The U.S. government executed Christopher Vialva Sept. 24, the seventh federal inmate to be put to death since mid-July. These are the first federal executions to occur after a 17-year hiatus, and the most in a single year since before World War II. All these executions take place at the new death row at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Hours before the scheduled execution the U.S. Supreme Court denied Vialva’s request to halt it. He also tried unsuccessfully to get President Donald Trump to commute his sentence to life in prison.

Vialva was convicted for the 1999 murder of two youth ministers, Todd and Stacie Bagley, who had traveled from Iowa to the Fort Hood army base in Texas for a church revival. At the time Vialva was 19 years old. He was the first federal inmate executed for crimes committed as a teenager in more than 70 years, and the first African American to be put to death since the federal government relaunched executions in July.

Vialva and another teenager, Brandon Bernard, who was 18 at the time, asked the Bagleys for a ride at a convenience store. Then Vialva and Bernard robbed and killed them. Bernard was also convicted and is currently on death row.

In a video statement released by Vialva’s lawyers before his execution, he expressed regret for what he had done and said he was not that same person anymore. “I committed a grave wrong when I was a lost kid and took two precious lives from this world,” he said. “Every day, I wish I could right this wrong.”

Vialva’s mother, Lisa Brown, spoke at an anti-death-penalty rally held across from the prison, to protest her son’s execution.

Two days earlier the federal government put to death 50-year-old William LeCroy. LeCroy had been sitting on death row since 2004 after he was convicted of killing a nurse in Georgia. He said at the time he had an obsession with witchcraft.

On Aug. 28 federal authorities executed 45-year-old Keith Nelson, who was convicted for killing a 10-year-old girl in 1999. “Over the years, we have come to know Keith as someone who was different than the person who committed the horrible crime to which he admitted and pled guilty to in 2001,” Nelson’s attorneys Dale Baich and Jen Moreno said in a statement. “We saw his humanity, his compassion, and his sense of humor.”

Of the seven federal prisoners put to death, five were Caucasian; Vialva, who was Black; and one, Lezmond Mitchell, a Navajo. He was executed for a crime committed on a Native American reservation against strong objections by Navajo leaders.

Decline in support for death penalty

While public support for capital punishment has been declining for years, continued use of the federal death penalty has been defended by Democratic and Republican administrations alike. While President Donald Trump restarted the executions this year, it was President Bill Clinton who signed the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which added 60 federal crimes punishable by death.

The capitalist rulers keep the death penalty to remind and intimidate workers with what they could face for getting involved in struggles in defense of their rights, jobs and working conditions.

To restart the executions, Attorney General William Barr replaced the deadly three-drug “cocktail” previously used, which had led to botched executions resulting in a rash of lawsuits, with a single drug, pentobarbital. This drug attacks the brain and central nervous system and is used to euthanize animals.

Anti-death-penalty proponents argue that lethal injection of pentobarbital can also lead to unconstitutional pain and suffering.

Fifty-five of the 2,600 prisoners currently sentenced to die by execution in the U.S. are federal inmates. As working-class sentiment has grown against capital punishment, 22 states do not allow the death penalty. Three others — Pennsylvania, Oregon and California — have governor-imposed moratoriums.

The U.S. was one of only 20 countries last year that carried out executions, a list that includes China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt.