As the clock ticks down on Donald Trump’s presidency, his administration has rushed to carry out an unprecedented number of federal executions. The Trump administration has executed at least 11 people since July, with more still to come. To put that in perspective, all 50 states combined executed seven people last year, the lowest number of state executions since 1983. Under Trump, the U.S. government has reversed what the New York Times calls an “informal 17-year moratorium” on capital punishment, enacting the “highest number of federal civilian executions in a single calendar year in either the 20th or 21st century.” And they’re not finished yet.
On January 15, five days before Joe Biden — who now opposes the death penalty and would like to eliminate it — takes office, a federal prisoner named Dustin Higgs is set to be executed. According to former attorney general William Barr, Dustin Higgs “kidnapped and murdered three women.” But prosecutors have never contended that Higgs killed any of the victims himself; the only witness, and even the confessed (and convicted) shooter, have confirmed this. Still, Higgs is the one who wound up on death row.
Higgs was sentenced to death for his participation in the murder of three women.
Higgs was present for the January 27, 1996, murders of Tanji Jackson, Tamika Black, and Mishann Chinn. The night before, Higgs and two of his friends, Willis Haynes and Victor Gloria, partied with the women at Higgs’s Maryland apartment. But after Higgs and Jackson got into an argument, the women reportedly left. Gloria later testified that Jackson made “some kind of threat” to Higgs on the way out and took down his license-plate number, prompting the men to get in Higgs’s van and follow them.
Gloria said that when they found Jackson, Black, and Chinn, Haynes persuaded them to get in the car. The women seemed to assume they were getting a ride home to Washington, D.C., but, according to Gloria, Higgs instead drove into Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge (which is federal property), where the women exited the vehicle. Gloria claimed that Higgs handed Haynes a pistol and instructed him to kill the women. Ultimately, it was Haynes who pulled the trigger, fatally shooting Jackson, Black, and Chinn. No one — not Gloria, not prosecutors, and not even Haynes — has ever disputed this.
Higgs was sentenced to death for his role in the shooting.
Even though Haynes confessed to the killing, he received a sentence of life in prison, rather than a death sentence. Higgs and Haynes were prosecuted separately, with Haynes tried first. According to the Daily Beast, the government first portrayed Haynes as a violent person acting of his own free will, saying, “He chooses when to kill and when to scare. He chooses when to threat[en] and when to carry it out.” Prosecutors argued in their closing statements that “[t]here is simply no evidence … that supports the proposition that Mr. Haynes was an automaton, that he was not capable of making his own decisions.”
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, reportedly argued that Higgs warned Haynes he’d “better make sure they’re dead” as he handed over the gun, and that Haynes feared what Higgs would do to him if he didn’t comply. Haynes later refuted this idea, writing in a 2012 affidavit that “the prosecution’s theory of our case was bullshit. Dustin didn’t threaten me. I was not scared of him. Dustin didn’t make me do anything that night or ever.” He noted that Higgs “had planned to leave the women there — alive — at the side of the road.”
But the jury could not reach a unanimous decision on a death sentence for Haynes, and he wound up with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
According to a video making the case for his clemency, prosecutors leaned on the same evidence in both trials, molding it to fit their desired narrative of each man. Higgs’s attorneys maintain in his petition that the bulk of the case against him came from Victor Gloria’s testimony — a version of events that changed over time. In the video, an investigator explains that Gloria said he knew nothing about the incident at first. Then, he reportedly told the mother of his child (and an attorney) that, under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, he’d been passed out for much of the van ride and only woke up when the gunshots went off. According to the petition, Gloria reportedly also said that, during the ride, he was so intoxicated that he had to keep his eyes shut or risk vomiting. But ultimately, he testified that he heard Higgs order Haynes to commit the murders, and saw Higgs hand Haynes the murder weapon.
But arguably the most suspicious thing about Gloria’s vacillating memory, according to the petition, is that he received “substantial” — and undisclosed — “benefits” in a plea deal. Gloria pleaded guilty as an accessory after the fact, and was sentenced to 84 months behind bars. Higgs’s attorneys point out that a district court allowed leniency because Gloria’s role in securing convictions was “the most important thing about [Gloria] at this point in the sentencing, and it overrides everything else.” In other words, Higgs’s camp suggests that Gloria may have been let off the hook — for the 1996 murders, and for a subsequent unrelated homicide — because prosecutors wanted to secure a maximum sentence in a triple murder, and Gloria could supply a narrative that made a death sentence possible.
Ultimately, in 2000, an all-male jury unanimously sentenced Higgs to death for premeditated murder and kidnapping. He has repeatedly appealed his case, and now his only avenue to leave death row is clemency.
Higgs would be the last person executed under President Trump — but his lawyers are pleading for life in prison for their client.
Currently, Higgs’s execution is scheduled for January 15 at the Terre Haute, Indiana, federal correctional complex. Higgs’s attorneys have asked Trump to commute his sentence to life in prison instead. Higgs tested positive for the coronavirus in mid-December, meaning his “remaining time [would] be marred by illness, but he will be severely restricted from visiting with his attorneys and family members without risk of making them seriously ill.”
On Tuesday, January 12, a district judge delayed Higgs’s execution until March 16, along with that of another death-row prisoner, Cory Johnson. Both men have COVID, and in her ruling, Judge Tanya Chutkan argued that the lung damage they have sustained from the coronavirus could “subject [them] to a sensation of drowning akin to waterboarding” during lethal injection. An appeals court rejected that delay on Thursday and ordered the executions to go forward as scheduled; at 11:34 p.m. that night, Johnson was executed. Lawyers for Higgs have appealed to the Supreme Court, and his fate now lies in the Court’s hands.
It also bears noting that Higgs has a son, Da’Quan, and his attorneys say he has remained a “dedicated parent” and “a strong and steady presence” in his son’s life, despite having been in prison since he was born. Da’Quan has also asked Trump for clemency, emphasizing in a letter that Higgs “was always there and has been my number one supporter, showed me what love is, and taught me to be a better man. I cannot imagine or think of where I could’ve ended up without the love and encouragement of my father.”
Additionally, Higgs’s attorneys contend that their client’s “traumatic childhood” interfered with his development and education, a personal history that was allegedly obscured and misrepresented at trial. In the clemency video, psychologists who met with Higgs after he was charged described a 28-year-old man whose cognitive function more closely resembled an early adolescent’s — a “frightened, scared person” rather than the “violent or aggressive” personality prosecutors described.
But above all, the petition stresses that “Mr. Higgs was not the actual killer and the actual killer received a life sentence,” and so dealing a harsher punishment to Higgs doesn’t add up.
A petition asking for a stay of execution is available here.
This post has been updated with new information.