Dustin Higgs, last convict scheduled to die under Trump, is executed
The last federal prisoner killed under the Trump administration was executed early Saturday at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Dustin Higgs, 48, was convicted of the kidnapping and killing of three women in a Maryland wildlife sanctuary in 1996. Higgs, pronounced dead at 1:23 a.m., was the thirteenth federal convict killed under Trump.
He was the third person to receive a fatal injection this week in Terre Haute Federal Prison.
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Higgs was infected with Covid-19 and his attorneys argued that the fatal injection of pentobarbital would induce "a drowning sensation similar to waterboarding" from virus-induced lung damage, according to court documents.
They also found that his co-defendant, Willis Haynes, was spared the death penalty.
On Thursday night, Corey Johnson, a 52-year-old convicted in a series of gang crimes, including seven murders, was executed in the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute. He also had Covid-19.
His lawyers argued that his lack of mental fitness, including childhood IQ tests that put him in the mentally retarded category, should have excluded him from execution.
President-elect Joe Biden, due to be inaugurated Wednesday, is against the federal death penalty and has signaled that he will end its application.
Friday night the US Supreme Court cleared a stay on Higgs' case that allowed the execution to move forward.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who disagreed, wrote: "After seventeen years without a single federal execution, the government has executed twelve people since July."
"Today Dustin Higgs turns 13," she continued. "To put that in a historical context: the federal government will have executed more than three times as many people in the past six months as in the past six decades."
Trump's Justice Department resumed federal executions last year after a 17-year hiatus. No president in more than 120 years has overseen so many federal executions.
The federal death sentences passed under Trump since 2020 are higher than the past 56 years combined, reducing the number of prisoners on federal death row by nearly a quarter. It is likely that none of the 50 or so remaining men will be executed anytime soon. Biden signals that he will stop federal executions.
In October 2000, a Maryland federal jury convicted Higgs of the first degree murder and abduction in the murders of Tamika Black, 19; Mischann Chinn. 23; and Tanji Jackson, 21. His death sentence was the first in the modern Maryland federal system, which abolished the death penalty in 2013.
Higgs attorneys argued that it was "arbitrary and unjust" to execute Higgs, while Willis Haynes, the man who fired the shots that killed the women, was spared a death sentence.
The federal judge who led the Higgs trial two decades ago said he deserved "little sympathy".
"He received a fair trial and was sentenced to death by a unanimous jury for a despicable crime," wrote US District Judge Peter Messitte in a December 29 ruling.
In a statement following the execution, Higgs' attorney Shawn Nolan said his client spent decades on death row helping other inmates and "working tirelessly to combat his unjust beliefs."
"The government completed its unprecedented slaughter of 13 people tonight by killing Dustin Higgs, a black who never killed anyone, on Martin Luther King's birthday," said Nolan. "There was no reason to kill him, especially during the pandemic and when he himself contracted Covid, which he contracted for these irresponsible executions of super-spreaders."
Higgs' December 19 pardon argued that he was an exemplary prisoner and committed father to a son born shortly after his arrest. Higgs had a traumatic childhood and lost his mother to cancer at age 10, the petition said.
"Mr. Higgs' difficult upbringing was not meaningfully presented to the jury in the process," wrote his lawyers.
Higgs was 23 years old on the evening of January 26, 1996 when he, Haynes, and a third man, Victor Gloria, picked up the three women in Washington DC and drove them to Higgs' apartment in Laurel, Maryland to have a drink and listen to music. Before dawn the next morning, an argument between Higgs and Jackson caused her to grab a knife in the kitchen before Haynes persuaded her to drop it.
Gloria said Jackson made threats when she left the apartment with the other women and appeared to be writing down the license plate of Higgs' van, which annoyed him. The three men chased after the women in Higgs' van. Haynes persuaded her to get into the vehicle.
Instead of taking her home, Higgs drove her to a remote location in Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, a state in Laurel.
"When one of the women knew something was wrong at the time, she asked if they had to go from here, and Higgs responded to something like that," said an appeals court that upheld Higgs' death sentence.
Higgs handed his pistol to Haynes, who shot all three women in front of the van before the men left, 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 a three-person panel of the 4th Court of Appeals in 2013 .
Investigators found Jackson's daily planner at the scene of the murders. It included Higgs' nickname "Bones", his phone number, address number, and the tag number for his van.
Chinn worked with the children's choir in a church, Jackson worked in a high school office, and Black was a teaching assistant at the National Presbyterian School in Washington, according to The Washington Post.
On the day in 2001 when Judge Higgs officially sentenced to death, Black's mother, Joyce Gaston, said this brought her little comfort, the Post reported.
"It will never be right in my head," said Gaston, "that was my daughter. I don't know how to deal with it."
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