A Waco federal judge denied a motion Wednesday to halt next week’s execution of a former Killeen gang member who participated in the 1999 shooting and burning deaths of two Iowa youth ministers on Fort Hood.
U.S. District Judge Alan Albright ruled after a 60-minute teleconference hearing that he did not have the jurisdiction or the authority to grant a request from federal death row inmate Brandon Bernard to block his scheduled Dec. 10 execution while his attorneys continue fighting for his life.
One of Bernard’s attorneys, John Carpenter, argued it was unlawful for the government to set Bernard’s execution date while he continues to pursue claims that prosecutors withheld information that could have resulted in a sentence other than the death penalty.
Albright said he denied those claims, known as alleged Brady violations, as did the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The judge said without other pending litigation, he has no authority to block the execution and the matter now is an issue for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Carpenter assured the judge they will seek relief from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bernard was 18 at the time he, Christopher Vialva, and four other teens kidnapped Todd and Stacie Bagley, who were visiting the Killeen area from Ottuma, Iowa.
The Bagleys were using a pay phone near a convenience store when Vialva pulled a gun and forced them into the trunk of their car. The group drove around for hours while trying to use the couple’s ATM cards and attempting to pawn Stacie Bagley’s wedding ring, according to trial testimony.
Two of the teen co-defendants provided vivid testimony in Waco’s federal court against Vialva and Bernard, telling jurors Stacie Bagley read the Bible to her captors as she and her husband pleaded for their lives. Vialva drove to a remote area on Fort Hood, shot them both in the head and set the car on fire while Stacie Bagley was still alive, according to trial testimony.
Vialva was executed Sept. 23, the seventh federal prisoner put to death since federal executions resumed in July after 17 years.
Robert Owen, another of Bernard’s attorneys, said Wednesday that they have sought relief for Bernard since discovering in 2018 that trial prosecutors reportedly withheld “critical evidence,” but that “procedural barriers” have prevented them from getting a hearing on the merits of the claim.
“We will continue to make our case in court that this hidden evidence would have changed the outcome of Brandon’s sentencing,” Owen said. “Given that five jurors no longer stand by their death verdict, Brandon must not be executed until the courts have fully addressed the constitutionality of his sentence, and we will continue to vigorously pursue that vitally important goal.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Frazier agreed with the judge that he did not have jurisdiction at this point to block the execution. Frazier also said the 11th-hour defense claims that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence had been denied on two levels.
Attorneys for Bernard have argued that he was a low-level gang member and merely was following orders from Vialva. They said at 18, Bernard was barely eligible for the death penalty, has had a “spotless record” in prison and has devoted his two decades on death row to steering at-risk youth away from crime and studying the Bible.
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