A federal judge has dismissed claims from two federal death row inmates who questioned the fitness of former U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. to preside over their 2000 trial in Waco. The judge also scheduled a re-sentencing hearing for one of the pair’s co-defendants who is serving a life term.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel threw out a motion from Brandon Bernard and Christopher Vialva to vacate, set aside or correct their death penalties on allegations that Smith was “not functional” because of drinking and “unfit” to preside over their trials.
Bernard, who was 19 at the time, and Vialva, who was 20, were convicted in Waco’s federal court in June 2000 and sentenced to death in the murders of Todd and Stacie Bagley, of Ottumwa, Iowa.
Bernard was sentenced to death only in Stacie Bagley’s death, while Vialva was sentenced to death in the murder of both the Bagleys, who were church youth ministers in Iowa.
Bernard, Vialva and four Killeen teenagers were charged in the June 1999 carjacking of the Bagleys outside a Killeen convenience store. Two of the teens testified against Bernard and Vialva that they plotted to kidnap the couple and drove them around in the trunk of their car while trying to use their ATM cards.
Trial testimony showed that Stacie Bagley read the Bible to her captors as she and her husband pleaded for their lives. Vialva shot them both and set the car on fire while Stacie Bagley was still alive, according to trial testimony.
Yeakel scheduled a sentencing hearing to start Feb. 5 in Austin for Tony Sparks, one of the four co-defendants in the case who went to trial with Bernard and Vialva and who was given a mandatory life sentence.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal juvenile offenders could not be subjected to mandatory life terms. Four years later, the court made its ruling retroactive to those already serving time, paving the way for the new sentencing hearing for Sparks.
Yeakel has set aside three days for the hearing, court officials said.
Sparks, who was 16 at the time and certified to stand trial as an adult, pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting carjacking resulting in death. A 15-year-old who was also certified to stand trial as an adult was sentenced to 5 years, and two 17-year-olds were sentenced to 20 years each.
Sparks’ attorney, David Sergi, of San Marcos, said Sparks is a German citizen and he will ask the judge to give him “an appropriate” sentence so he can serve his time and move back to Germany, where his father is in the military.
He said Sparks is serving his sentence in a maximum-security prison in Colorado known as “supermax.”
“This is one of those really unusual cases where going to supermax helped save his life,” Sergi said. “He needed to get away from all the noise going on in prison so he could focus on himself.”
Sparks earned his GED in prison and has taken courses in psychology and the Peloponnesian war, Sergi said.
The 32-page motion from Bernard and Vialva asked Yeakel to vacate the death sentences or to order a hearing “so that evidence may be presented concerning former Judge Smith’s unfitness, and how it affected all his decisions respecting” Bernard and Vialva.
Smith retired under a cloud in September 2016, ending his 32-year tenure as Waco’s federal judge. He was stripped of hearing new cases for a year and required to go to counseling after the Judicial Council of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found he made “inappropriate and unwanted physical and nonphysical advances” toward a female courthouse staff member in his court chambers in 1998 and lied to investigators about the incident.
In a sworn statement given to investigators, a former clerk said Smith smelled of alcohol and had the appearance of someone who had been drinking.
The judicial council renewed its investigation into Smith after complaints surfaced that at least two more women had been subjected to Smith’s unwanted advances in his chambers. His retirement ended the investigation.