Great Britain

Dustin Higgs becomes 13th and final federal prisoner executed under Trump

The 13th and last execution of a federal inmate under Donald Trump’s presidency has taken place in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Dustin Higgs, 48, had been sentenced to death for the killings of three women in a Maryland wildlife refuge. His lawyers argued it was “arbitrary and inequitable” to execute him while Willis Haynes, the man who shot the women in 1996, was spared a death sentence.

The federal judge who presided over Higgs’s trial said he “merits little compassion”.

“He received a fair trial and was convicted and sentenced to death by a unanimous jury for a despicable crime,” US District Judge Peter Messitte wrote on 29 December.

Trump ended a 17-year hiatus on the federal death penalty in July.

Shawn Nolan, one of Higgs’s attorneys, saw a clear political agenda in the unprecedented string of federal executions. Higgs was executed a few days before Joe Biden becomes president. A spokesman for Biden has said the Democrat is against the death penalty and will work to end its use.

“In the midst of the pandemic and everything that’s going on right now in the country, it seems just insane to move forward with these executions,” Nolan said. “And particularly for Dustin, who didn’t shoot anybody. He didn’t kill anybody.”

Defense attorneys had won temporary stays of execution for Higgs and another inmate, Corey Johnson, after arguing recent Covid-19 infections put them at greater risk of unnecessary suffering during lethal injections. But higher courts overruled those decisions. Johnson was killed on Thursday night.

Higgs’s petition for clemency says he has been a model prisoner and dedicated father to a son born after his arrest. Higgs had a traumatic childhood and lost his mother to cancer when he was 10, the petition says.

“Mr Higgs’s difficult upbringing was not meaningfully presented to the jury at trial,“ his attorneys wrote.

In October 2000 a federal jury in Maryland convicted Higgs of first-degree murder and kidnapping in the killings of Tamika Black, 19; Mishann Chinn, 23; and Tanji Jackson, 21. His death sentence was the first imposed in the modern era of the federal system in Maryland, which abolished the death penalty in 2013.

Higgs was 23 on the evening of 26 January 1996 when he, Haynes and a third man, Victor Gloria, picked up the three women in Washington DC and drove them to Higgs’s apartment in Laurel, Maryland, to drink alcohol and listen to music. Before dawn an argument between Higgs and Jackson prompted her to grab a knife before Haynes persuaded her to drop it.

Gloria said Jackson made threats as she left the apartment with the other women and appeared to write down the number of Higgs’s van. The men chased the women in the van and Haynes persuaded them to get in. Higgs drove them to a secluded spot in the Patuxent national wildlife refuge, federal land in Laurel.

“Aware at that point that something was amiss, one of the women asked if they were going to have to ‘walk from here’ and Higgs responded ’something like that’,” said an appeals court ruling upholding Higgs’s death sentence.

Higgs handed his pistol to Haynes, who shot all three women, Gloria testified.

“Gloria turned to ask Higgs what he was doing, but saw Higgs holding the steering wheel and watching the shootings from the rearview mirror,” said the 2013 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th US circuit court of appeals.

Chinn worked with the children’s choir at a church, Jackson worked in the office at a high school and Black was a teacher’s aide at National Presbyterian school in Washington, according to the Washington Post.

Investigators found Jackson’s day planner at the scene. It contained Higgs’s nickname, “Bones”, his telephone number, his address and the tag number for his van.

The jurors who convicted Haynes failed to reach a unanimous verdict on a death sentence. A different jury convicted Higgs and returned a death sentence. Gloria pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact and was sentenced to seven years.

Higgs argued his death sentence should be thrown out because jurors failed to consider it as a “mitigating factor” that Haynes was convicted of identical charges but sentenced to life. The appeals court concluded that rational jurors could find that Higgs had the dominant role in the murders even though Haynes fired the gun.

In a clemency petition Higgs’s lawyers said Gloria received a “substantial deal” in exchange for his cooperation

“Moreover,” they wrote, “significant questions remain as to whether Mr Gloria received the additional undisclosed benefit of having an unrelated state murder investigation against him dropped at the urging of federal officers to protect his credibility as the star witness. A federal death verdict should not rest on such a flimsy basis.”

On the day in 2001 when the judge sentenced Higgs to death, Black’s mother, Joyce Gaston, said it brought her little solace, the Post reported. “It’s not going to ever be right in my mind,” Gaston said, “That was my daughter. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it.”

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