Two Killeen men will remain on death row after their latest appeal was denied by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, according to court documents.
Brandon Bernard and Christopher Vialva were convicted of multiple charges and sentenced to death in 2000 following the June 1999 Fort Hood murders of Todd and Stacie Bagley, youth ministers from Iowa.
The Bagleys were visiting Killeen for a church revival when Bernard, Vialva, and three other teens carjacked the married couple and forced them into the trunk of the car. The teens drove the car for hours as the couple made pleas for their lives from the trunk. The teens attempted to use the couple’s debit and credit cards and pawn belongings, according to court documents. The group then drove to the Belton Lake Outdoor Recreation Area, where Vialva shot the couple one time each. The gunshot killed Todd Bagley. His wife survived the gunshot, but reportedly died of smoke inhalation after Bernard set the car on fire in an attempt to destroy the evidence.
The teens then attempted to leave the scene, but their car got stuck in a muddy ditch and they were found by emergency personnel responding to reports of the fire.
Bernard and Vialva were each charged with carjacking and aiding and abetting in the same offense, conspiracy to commit murder, and the murders of Todd and Stacie Bagley, as well as aiding and abetting in the murders. The other teens were given shorter sentences for their involvement.
The men filed appeals in 2002, citing multiple claims of improper trial proceedings, including wrongful dismissal of a juror and alleged third-party communication with jurors.
However, each claim was addressed and found to be insubstantial. Those appeals were denied and the sentences for both men upheld.
Bernard and Vialva each filed appeals again in late 2017 seeking relief from judgment, alleging flaws in the integrity of the trial proceedings. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel denied the appeals in February 2018. Both men then submitted appeals to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming that Judge Walter Smith, who oversaw the initial trials, was unfit to do so because of “impairments,” according to court documents filed Sept. 14.
In the recent allegations, the two cited a 2014 judicial misconduct investigation involving reports that Judge Smith “engaged in abusive sexual conduct” with a deputy clerk in 1998. Smith resigned in 2016 amid the investigation, ending his 32-year career.
The Fifth Circuit ruled that the cited investigation was unrelated and had no bearing on the murder trial, and the appeal was denied.
“Judge Smith’s unrelated misconduct does not constitute a defect in the integrity of Bernard’s and Vialva’s hearing proceedings,” the court’s decision stated. “To hold otherwise would implicate every one of Judge Smith’s decisions for an undetermined period of time.”
Bernard and Vialva will both continue to serve life sentences and await the death penalty for their charges.
Both stand to be executed in the same chamber as Timothy McVeigh at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., but no execution date has been set.
Tony Sparks, who was 16 at the time of the crime, participated in the carjacking, but was taken home before the murders. He was initially given a sentence of life in prison, but it was shortened in March. Sparks will now serve 420 months in prison, followed by a five-year supervised release term. He has already served 220 months.
Terry Terrell Brown and Christopher Michael Lewis, both 17 at the time, will soon reach the end of their respective 20-year prison terms.
Gregory Hardin Lynch, 15 at the time, served a five-year sentence for his part in providing the weapon used in the murders.