TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (NewsNation Now) — The U.S. government carried out its 13th and final execution under President Donald Trump’s administration early Saturday after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for 48-year-old Dustin Higgs to be put to death.
Five hours after Higgs was initially set to be executed, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority cleared the way for lethal injections to proceed by overturning a stay ordered by a federal appeals court.
Higgs was pronounced dead at 1:23 a.m. In his final statement, Higgs was calm but defiant, mentioning the victims by name.
“I’d like to say I am an innocent man,” he said. “I did not order the murders.”
Higgs was sentenced to death for the killings of three women in a Maryland wildlife refuge, a crime that led to a life sentence for the man who fired the fatal shots.
Higgs, who was the third to receive a lethal injection this week at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, said nobody alleges he pulled the trigger. His lawyers have argued it is “arbitrary and inequitable” to execute Higgs while Willis Haynes, the man who fatally shot the women in 1996, was spared a death sentence.
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.
The federal judge who presided over Higgs’ trial two decades ago says 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.
Higgs was the 13th and final federal inmate executed since July, when Trump ended a 17-year hiatus on the federal death penalty. His execution happened just five days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office with a promise to try to end the death penalty.
Defense attorneys won temporary stays of execution this week for Higgs and another inmate, Corey Johnson, after arguing that their recent COVID-19 infections put them at greater risk of unnecessary suffering during the lethal injections. But higher courts overruled those decisions, allowing the executions to go forward, and Johnson was executed Thursday night.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday was consistent with its earlier decisions: it had also dismissed any orders by lower courts delaying federal executions since they were resumed last year.
Higgs’ Dec. 19 petition for clemency says he has 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 says.
“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.
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.
The jurors who convicted Haynes failed to reach a unanimous verdict on whether to impose a death sentence. A different jury convicted Higgs and returned a death sentence after a separate trial. Gloria pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to the murders and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Higgs has argued that 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 in prison. The appeals court concluded that rational jurors could find that Higgs had the dominant role in the murders even though Haynes indisputably was the triggerman.
In their clemency petition, Higgs’ 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.”
Alexa Cave, Higgs’ sister, traveled to Terre Haute with her adult son to be a witness to the execution, and said she was praying for something to delay it. Life in prison would be a more just punishment, she said, adding that she speaks with him by telephone multiple times a week.
“They don’t have freedom at all in any sense of the word,” she said in an interview. “What purpose does it serve to kill you? It brings nothing back.”
Reporting by Michael Kunzelman/AP and Jonathan Allen/Reuters.