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Dustin Higgs, last convict scheduled to die under Trump, is executed

Higgs was the thirteenth federal convict put to death under Trump and the third this week to receive a lethal injection.
Image: Dustin Higgs, death penalty protest
Anti-death penalty activist Ashley Kincaid holds a sign along Prairieton Road across from the Federal Death Chamber, in Terre Haute, Ind. on Jan. 15, 2021.Austen Leake / The Tribune-Star via AP

The last federal prisoner to be put to death under the Trump administration was executed early Saturday at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Dustin Higgs, 48, was convicted in the 1996 kidnapping and killings of three women in a Maryland wildlife refuge. Higgs, who was pronounced dead at 1:23 a.m., was the thirteenth federal convict put to death under Trump.

He was the third to receive a lethal injection this week at the federal prison in Terre Haute.

Higgs was infected with Covid–19, and his lawyers argued that the fatal injection of pentobarbital would "subject [him] to a sensation of drowning akin to waterboarding" as a result of virus-related lung damage, according to court documents.

They also noted his codefendant, Willis Haynes, was spared the death penalty.

On Thursday night, Corey Johnson, a 52-year-old who was convicted in a series of gang crimes that included seven murders, was executed at 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 place him in the mentally disabled category, should have precluded him from execution.

President-elect Joe Biden, scheduled to be inaugurated Wednesday, opposes the federal death penalty and has signaled he’ll end its use.

Friday night the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay in Higgs' case, which allowed the execution to move forward.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who dissented, wrote, "After seventeen years without a single federal execution, the Government has executed twelve people since July."

"Today, Dustin Higgs will become the thirteenth," she continued. "To put that in historical context, the Federal Government will have executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades."

Image: Dustin Higgs
Dustin Higgs at the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Ind., in 2015.Federal Bureau of Prisons / via AP

Trump’s Justice Department resumed federal executions last year following a 17-year hiatus. No president in more than 120 years had overseen as many federal executions.

The number of federal death sentences carried out under Trump since 2020 is more than in the previous 56 years combined, reducing the number of prisoners on federal death row by nearly a quarter. It’s likely none of the around 50 remaining men will be executed anytime soon, with Biden signaling he’ll end federal executions.

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’ lawyers argued it was “arbitrary and inequitable” 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 presided over Higgs’ trial two decades ago 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,” U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte wrote in a Dec. 29 ruling.

In a statement after the execution, Higgs’ attorney, Shawn Nolan, said his client had spent decades on death row helping other inmates and “working tirelessly to fight his unjust convictions.”

“The government completed its unprecedented slaughter of 13 human beings tonight by killing Dustin Higgs, a Black man who never killed anyone, on Martin Luther King’s birthday,” Nolan said. “There was no reason to kill him, particularly during the pandemic and when he, himself, was sick with Covid that he contracted because of these irresponsible, super-spreader executions.”

Higgs’ Dec. 19 petition for clemency argued he had been a model prisoner and dedicated father to a son born shortly after his arrest. Higgs had a traumatic childhood and lost his mother to cancer when he was 10, the petition said.

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

Higgs was 23 on the evening of Jan. 26, 1996, when he, Haynes and a third man, Victor Gloria, picked up the three women in Washington, D.C., and drove them to Higgs’ apartment in Laurel, Maryland, to drink alcohol and listen to music. Before dawn the next morning, an argument between Higgs and Jackson prompted her to grab a knife in the kitchen 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 license plate number of Higgs’ van, angering him. The three men chased after the women in Higgs’ van. Haynes persuaded them to get into the vehicle.

Instead of taking them home, 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 outside 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 the 2013 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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

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.

On the day in 2001 when the judge formally 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.”