September 24, 2020

Christopher Vialva is First Man in 70 Years to be Executed for Crimes Committed as a Teenager

Vialva was the first Black man to be executed since the Trump administration ended the 17-year federal moratorium on executions.

Contact: Nancy Rodriguez

Washington, D.C.  – American Constitution Society President Russ Feingold released the following statement in response to the federal government’s execution of Christopher Vialva, a Black man who was only 19 years old when he was sentenced to death.

“Today, the federal government reached a macabre milestone when it executed Christopher Vialva. Mr. Vialva, the first Black man to be executed since the Trump administration ended the seventeen-year federal moratorium on executions, was just 19 years old when he was sentenced to death, making him the youngest person to be sentenced and subsequently executed by the federal government in over seventy years.

His execution proceeded despite the Supreme Court’s frequent acknowledgement over the past 15 years that there is a growing body of scientific evidence that children, even those in late adolescence, are still developing neurologically. In 2005, in a decision that found it unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy acknowledged that there is a lack of ‘penological justifications for the death penalty . . . [when] imposed on one whose culpability or blameworthiness is diminished, to a substantial degree, by reason of youth and immaturity.’

There is no reason we as a society should judge a young person—whether 17, 18, or 19—as so irredeemable and beyond rehabilitation that we forfeit their life. By all accounts, Mr. Vialva had grown into a mature and peaceful man who expressed remorse for the harm and suffering he inflicted as a teenager. Moreover, Mr. Vialva’s constitutional right to effective representation and a fair trial was severely undermined by his lawyer’s stunning conflict of interest. Prior to and during his trial, his lawyer was actively seeking a job in the same U.S. Attorney’s office that was prosecution the case, a job he got shortly after Mr. Vialva was convicted and sentenced to death.

All of this is made only more alarming by the fact that Mr. Vialva is the seventh person the federal government has executed since July. In less than three months, without explanation or justification, the Trump administration has executed more than twice as many people as the federal government executed in the previous 30 years. This procession of executions is historically unprecedented in its speed and scope and is out of step with what is happening at the state level, where death sentences and executions are near their lowest levels in decades. It needs to stop.”


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