Psychologist Raises Concerns About Upcoming Federal Execution for Crimes Committed as a Teenager

The federal government intends to execute Christopher Vialva (pictured) on September 24, 2020, the first time in nearly 70 years it will have put any teenage offender to death. But according to a prominent cognitive neuropsychologist, the decision to execute Vialva is out of step with what science now knows about the workings of the adolescent brain.

Vialva was 19 years old when he and four co-defendants, aged 15, 16, 16, and 18, killed a Texas couple during a carjacking and robbery. In a September 17 commentary in Bloomberg Law, Dr. Jason Chein, the director of the Temple University Brain Research and Imaging Center, writes that while this was clearly an abhorrent act, “to make a final judgment about a person’s life based on a crime he committed as a teenager is to ignore what the last 20-plus years of research has taught us about the developing brains of teenagers and adolescents.”

Tried in Texas federal district court in 2020, Vialva and his 18-year-old co-defendant Brandon Bernard were sentenced to death. Since then, “researchers have developed new brain imaging technologies that give us insight into the physiological underpinnings for the emotional reactivity and poor decision-making that characterizes teenagers,” Chein says. “This science suggests that no person of this age should be eligible for capital punishment—regardless of their personal history, intellectual capacity, eventual maturity, or the vileness of their crime.”

Chein says the typical teen’s “[d]eficits in the control of emotions and behavior” are magnified during times of stress and are “further heightened in teenagers who have suffered from some form of abuse.” This, he says makes the death penalty particularly inappropriate for teen offenders like Vialva. Vialva’s mother was white, and his father was Black. He was raised by his mother in an abusive home and repeatedly denigrated by an overtly racist grandfather and stepfather. Chein notes that Vialva “also shows signs of organic brain damage from a neonatal infection” and had been “kicked out of his childhood home only three days” before the murder.

On August 10, Vialva filed a 100-page habeas corpus petition in federal district court that included challenges to his death sentence based upon his mental age and the constitutionality of executing teen offenders. The district court denied the petition on September 9. Late on September 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit summarily affirmed the district court’s decision and denied Vialva’s request for a stay of execution. Vialva is expected seek a stay of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court to to review the court’s decision.

Vialva could be the first African American executed by the federal government since its resumption of executions after a seventeen-year hiatus. Thirty-four of the 57 people currently on federal death row are people of color, including 26 Black men.

In addition to the age-related challenges to his execution, Vialva has argued that his trial was marred by ineffective and conflicted counsel who failed to investigate the extensive evidence of his traumatic childhood and cognitive impairments. At the time of trial, Vialva’s lawyer was actively seeking employment with the U.S. Attorney’s Office that was prosecuting the case. Vialva later discovered that his trial judge presided over his trial and post-conviction proceedings while battling uncontrolled alcoholism and was reportedly intoxicated while conducting his judicial duties. The judge eventually resigned under pressure after the Judicial Council of the Fifth Circuit imposed “severe sanctions” and ordered him to desist from continuing misconduct.

The district court wrote that Vialva’s argument that his trial counsel had a conflict of interest was “a significant claim.” However, the court said, “Mr. Vialva has already raised that claim in prior [habeas] proceedings … and was unsuccessful.”

If Vialva’s execution takes place as scheduled, it would be the sixth federal execution conducted since July, double the number in the previous half-century and more than in any year since World War II. The last person under age 20 executed by the federal government was William Tyler, who was executed in Washington, D.C in 1952 for a violation of District of Columbia law. He was 18 at the time of his offense.

A recent DPIC analysis found that one-quarter of those on federal death row were sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were age 21 or younger. 42% were age 25 and younger. DPIC also found that 63% of federal death-row prisoners suffered from two or more of serious mental illness, intellectual disability or brain damage, and chronic childhood abuse.

Sources

Dr. Jason Chein, INSIGHT: Adolescent Brain Immaturity Makes Pending Execution Inappropriate, Bloomberg Law, Sept. 17, 2020; Adam Pinsker, 2 Executions Scheduled Next Week In Terre Haute, WFYI Indianapolis, September 162020.