BALTIMORE — Dustin John Higgs, who was convicted of murdering three women in Prince George’s County in 1996, was executed early Saturday morning, the 13th federal inmate put to death in six months by the outgoing Trump administration.
After a U.S. Supreme Court order Friday night lifted a stay on his execution, Higgs, 48, became the final inmate put to death under Trump since his administration resumed federal executions in July after a 17-year hiatus.
“The government completed its unprecedented slaughter of 13 human beings tonight,” said Shawn Nolan, the public defender who represented Higgs.
Calling him “a fine man, a terrific father, brother and nephew,” Nolan said there was no reason to kill him, a Black man, and particularly on Martin Luther King’s birthday, which was Friday. After delays, Higgs was actually executed Saturday, when he was pronounced dead at 1:23 a.m., according to the Associated Press.
“Shame on all of those involved,” Nolan said.
Unlike the two executions that preceded Higgs’ on Wednesday and Thursday, the high court handed down not just a brief order, but one with two strongly worded dissents by justices who denounced the number of inmates who had been put to death in such a compressed time frame.
“After seventeen years without a single federal execution, the Government has executed twelve people since July,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in advance of Higgs’ execution. “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.
“Throughout this expedited spree of executions, this Court has consistently rejected inmates’ credible claims for relief,” she wrote. “This is not justice.”
Justice Stephen Breyer decried the number of complex issues surrounding the death penalty that the court has faced, leaving inmates on death row for decades in some cases even as there is pressure to carry out their sentences.
“Higgs’ case illustrates this dilemma,” wrote Breyer, noting challenges based on such new issues as his recent diagnosis of COVID-19. “Yet to consider these questions ... takes time.
“I remain convinced that this dilemma arises out of efforts to impose the death penalty. Together with other problems that I have previously described, it calls into question the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.”
The executions have been carried out amid the tumultuous final days and months of the Trump presidency and the unyielding coronavirus pandemic, becoming inextricable from both.
Even as more states and countries abandoned capital punishment, Trump remained a vocal supporter. Under his watch, more federal inmates were executed in a year than under any previous president since the 1800s.
With the the advent of COVID-19, states began discontinuing executions, deeming it too risky to bring together in a confined space the large number of staff, witnesses and others needed to carry out the process.
But they continued apace at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, which houses federal death row, becoming “superspreader events,” lawyers said, with inmates and those involved in the executions contracting COVID-19.
Among them was Higgs, who tested positive in December. Earlier this week he won what turned out to be a temporary delay in his execution when a federal judge in Washington agreed with his attorneys that COVID-19 made him more vulnerable to suffering flash pulmonary edema, the rapid accumulation of fluid in the lungs, when given the lethal injection. Comparing the ensuing pain to waterboarding, defense lawyers argued that would violate the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan delayed the executions of Higgs and another death row inmate, Cory Johnson, 52, until March to give them time to recover from COVID-19, and wrote that it was “irresponsible at best” to put those who perform or witness the punishment at risk.
But higher courts ordered that the executions could go on, and Johnson was put to death Thursday night.
By Friday, Higgs had one issue pending before the Supreme Court, involving a law requiring federal executions to follow the procedures of the state in which the crime occurred. But Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013, and a federal judge in Greenbelt, who was asked to designate the use of another state’s procedures, ruled in December that he was not authorized to amend Higgs’ sentence in that way.
The federal executions also come at a time when the number of inmates put to death by the states has been declining over the past two decades. Critics note that since Trump lost the election in November, eight people have been executed during the lame-duck period before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated.
Biden, who previously shepherded a bill that expanded the use of the death penalty, has pledged to abolish its use federally.
“The rush is because on Wednesday a president is coming into office who says he’s not going to kill people,” said Leigh Goodmark, a University of Maryland law professor.
Goodmark, who launched the law school’s Gender Violence Clinic, was among those who advocated to spare the life of Lisa Montgomery, who was executed early Wednesday morning, the first female federal inmate to be put to death since the 1950s.
In the haste to execute, she said, courts did not spend adequate time to consider issues such as the tortuous sexual abuse Montgomery, 52, endured since childhood and which was “directly tied to the crime” of killing another woman and taking her unborn child, and the severe mental illness that left her not understanding her punishment.
Robert Blecker, a professor emeritus of criminal law and constitutional history at New York Law School, said he anticipates another moratorium on federal executions when Biden takes office.
“And that’s appropriate, from a constitutional perspective of executive prerogative,” said Blecker, who supports the death penalty but says it needs to be reformed in how it’s applied.
Blecker said if capital punishment is abolished, he questions what would be the alternative for “the worst of the worst of the worst.
“It’s all and only about justice,” he said.
The federal executions of Higgs and those preceding him followed similar pathways, with final appeals decided late at night by a Supreme Court with a solid majority that favored proceeding. The orders did not include the vote totals for the decisions, except to note the number of dissents, and often it was the court’s three liberals, Breyer, Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Kagan joined them in dissenting in Friday night’s decision but did not file a written detailing of her objections.
Higgs was tried in federal rather than state court because the murders took place on U.S.-owned land.
On Jan. 27, 1996, three women, Tanji Jackson, 21; Mishann Chinn, 23; and Tamika Black, 19, were shot to death along a desolate stretch of Route 197 in the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Prince George’s County.
According to trial testimony, they had been with Higgs and two other men at his apartment in Laurel when a dispute arose. The women left, but accepted a ride with the men, but instead of taking them home, Higgs drove to the isolated area and, according to testimony, gave a gun to one of the other men, Willis Haynes, and told him to “make sure they’re all dead.”
Haynes was separately convicted in the murders and sentenced to life in prison. He has since provided a signed statement to Higgs’ lawyers, saying that contrary to what prosecutors argued in the case, he was not ordered to kill the women.
Higgs’ supporters argue that since he did not shoot the women himself, he does not deserve the death penalty. Relatives of the victims said at the time of his sentencing that they believed the punishment was just. They could not be reached for comment more recently.