9 mins ago — Dustin Higgs, 48, was killed by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind. He was the third federal inmate to die
Luke 5:23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to …
Dustin Higgs, 48, had been sentenced to death for the killings of three women in a Maryland wildlife refuge. His lawyers argued it was “arbitrary and inequitable” to execute him while Willis Haynes, the man who shot the women in 1996, was spared a death sentence.
The federal judge who presided over Higgs’s trial 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,” US District Judge Peter Messitte wrote on 29 December.
Trump ended a 17-year hiatus on the federal death penalty in July.
The table was long and blue, its leather upholstery covering a thin layer of foam padding. There were seven discolored brown-and-blue straps that stretched across its width, each of them locked and pulled tight. At the foot of the table were two shackles, silver metal glimmering under the fluorescent lights.
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I have been thinking about that room—what it felt like to stand in a room built to kill—as the federal government has rushed to execute more than a dozen people in the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency.
After 17 years without a federal execution in the United States, the Trump administration has gone on what can only be called a killing spree. It has used the power of the state to eliminate people from the world—to strip people of their very breath. Taking life is the most serious thing any government has the power to do
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents* was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;* and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt
The executions resumed in July 2020.
At 8:07 a.m. on July 14, the federal government executed Daniel Lewis Lee.
At 8:19 a.m. on July 16, the federal government executed Wesley Ira Purkey.
At 4:36 p.m. on July 17, the federal government executed Dustin Lee Honken.
At 6:29 p.m. on August 26, the federal government executed Lezmond Charles Mitchell.
At 4:32 p.m. on August 28, the federal government executed Keith Dwayne Nelson.
At 9:06 p.m. on September 22, the federal government executed William Emmett LeCroy Jr.
At 6:46 p.m. on September 24, the federal government executed Christopher Andre Vialva.
At 11:47 p.m. on November 19, the federal government executed Orlando Cordia Hall.
At 9:27 p.m. on December 10, the federal government executed Brandon Bernard.
At 8:21 p.m. on December 11, the federal government executed Alfred Bourgeois.
At 1:31 a.m. on January 13, the federal government executed Lisa Montgomery.
At 11:34 p.m. on January 14, the federal government executed Cory Johnson.
Tonight, on January 15, the federal government is scheduled to execute Dustin John Higgs.
If the Trump administration is successful in carrying out this last execution, it will have conducted more federal executions in the final months of the president’s term than in the previous 67 years combined.
I believe that the death penalty is and has always been unethical, but the context of these executions has magnified its problems. The killings continued unabated even after Trump lost an election to a man who has committed to ending the death penalty on the federal level. “Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time,” the president-elect’s campaign explained, “Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example. These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole.”
Biden will have the power to commute death sentences, and to declare a moratorium on executions while the legislation is pending. Whether people on death row live or die is likely to depend not on the nature of their crime, but simply on whether their execution happens to be scheduled for before or after Biden acts.
I think of my own trip to Angola’s death row, and the men I saw there. I think of what it means to have no control over when or if you will die at the hands of your government. To wait for years, for decades, not knowing when you will get the call from your attorney, but always fearing that the call will come. I think of those on death row who watch as the people with whom they’ve shared a space are put in a van and brought to the place where they will be killed. I think about what they will feel if the federal death penalty is ended, knowing that if the presidential election had gone a different way, they likely would have ridden in that van as well.
We know that the death penalty is far more likely to be imposed on a convicted murder when that person is Black and the victim is white than when the victim is Black and the killer is white.
But set aside, for a moment, the larger philosophical questions of whether the death penalty should ever be administered, and consider the ethical questions of why it is being carried out at this moment, right now. Trump has become the first president ever to be impeached twice, and now faces trial in the Senate. But even though most of the House of Representatives, including a record number of members of his own party, have declared him unfit for the office he holds, he is still exercising the most awesome of the powers of the state—the power to take a life.
After Lisa Montgomery became the first woman to be executed by the federal government since 1953, her attorney, Kelley Henry, put out a statement: “The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight. Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame.”
The people who are scheduled for execution were convicted of involvement in horrifying crimes; the lives they took can never be returned. But the federal government taking their life in return does not represent justice.
The death penalty is wrong because it is wrong. But its inhumanity has been amplified by the context in which the country finds itself. In five days, a president will take office who wants to eliminate the death penalty. And the current administration is attempting one final act of cruelty before he does.
Shawn Nolan, one of Higgs’s attorneys, saw a clear political agenda in the unprecedented string of federal executions. Higgs was executed a few days before Joe Biden becomes president. A spokesman for Biden has said the Democrat is against the death penalty and will work to end its use.
“In the midst of the pandemic and everything that’s going on right now in the country, it seems just insane to move forward with these executions,” Nolan said. “And particularly for Dustin, who didn’t shoot anybody. He didn’t kill anybody.”
Defense attorneys had won temporary stays of execution for Higgs and another inmate, Corey Johnson, after arguing recent Covid-19 infections put them at greater risk of unnecessary suffering during lethal injections. But higher courts overruled those decisions. Johnson was killed on Thursday night.
Higgs’s petition for clemency says he has been a model prisoner and dedicated father to a son born 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.
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 was 23 on the evening of 26 January 1996 when he, Haynes and a third man, Victor Gloria, picked up the three women in Washington DC and drove them to Higgs’s apartment in Laurel, Maryland, to drink alcohol and listen to music. Before dawn an argument between Higgs and Jackson prompted her to grab a knife 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 number of Higgs’s van. The men chased the women in the van and Haynes persuaded them to get in. 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, 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 US circuit court of appeals.
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.
Investigators found Jackson’s day planner at the scene. It contained Higgs’s nickname, “Bones”, his telephone number, his address and the tag number for his van.
The jurors who convicted Haynes failed to reach a unanimous verdict on a death sentence. A different jury convicted Higgs and returned a death sentence. Gloria pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact and was sentenced to seven years.
Higgs argued 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. The appeals court concluded that rational jurors could find that Higgs had the dominant role in the murders even though Haynes fired the gun.
In a clemency petition Higgs’s 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.”
On the day in 2001 when the judge 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.”
Executions Scheduled for Inmates Convicted of Brutal Murders Many Years Ago
Attorney General William P. Barr today directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of three federal-death row inmates sentenced to death for staggeringly brutal murders, including the murder of a child and, with respect to two inmates, the murder of multiple victims.
- Alfred Bourgeois abused, tortured, and beat to death his young daughter. After a paternity test identified Bourgeois as the father of a two-and-a-half-year-old girl and a court ordered that he pay child support to the mother, Bourgeois took temporary custody of his daughter and brought her with him on a trucking route. While on the trip, Bourgeois systematically abused and tortured her — including by punching her in the face, whipping her with an electrical cord, and burning the bottom of her foot with a cigarette lighter. In July 2002, Bourgeois arrived at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station for a delivery. While backing his truck up to a loading dock, his daughter tipped over her training potty. Bourgeois became enraged and repeatedly slammed the back of her head into the truck’s window and dashboard, killing her. On March 16, 2004, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas found Bourgeois guilty of murder within the special territorial jurisdiction of the United States, and unanimously recommended a death sentence, which the court imposed. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal, and his requests for collateral relief were ultimately rejected by federal courts. In July 2019, his execution was scheduled for Jan. 13, 2020, but legal impediments prevented the government from proceeding at that time. Bourgeois is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Dec. 11, 2020, at the Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute, Indiana.
- Cory Johnson murdered seven people — Peyton Johnson, Louis Johnson, Bobby Long, Dorothy Armstrong, Anthony Carter, Linwood Chiles, and Curtis Thorne — in furtherance of his drug-trafficking activities. Between 1989 and July 1992, Johnson and several co-conspirators, including federal death-row inmates Richard Tipton and James Roane, were partners in a large drug-trafficking conspiracy based in Richmond, Virginia. In early 1992, Johnson went on a killing spree, shooting and killing each of the seven victims for perceived slights or rivalry in the drug trade. Johnson shot one victim at close range after ordering him to place his head on a car steering wheel. Johnson shot and killed another victim at the victim’s home when he failed to pay for crack cocaine — and Johnson also murdered the victim’s sister and a male acquaintance. In February 1993, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia found Johnson guilty of numerous federal offenses, including seven counts of capital murder, and unanimously recommended seven death sentences, which the court imposed. Johnson’s convictions and sentences were affirmed on appeal more than 24 years ago, and his initial round of collateral challenges failed 15 years ago. Johnson’s execution initially was scheduled to occur in May 2006, but a preliminary injunction prevented the government from proceeding until it was vacated this September. Johnson is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Jan. 14, 2021, at the Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute, Indiana.
- Dustin John Higgs kidnapped and murdered three women — Tamika Black, 19; Tanji Jackson, 21; and Mishann Chinn, 23. One evening in January 1996, Higgs and two friends drove to Washington, D.C., to pick up Black, Jackson, and Chinn, whom Higgs had invited to his apartment in Laurel, Maryland. At the apartment, Jackson rebuffed an advance by Higgs and the women left. Higgs offered the women a ride back to Washington, D.C., but instead drove to a secluded area in the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, ordered the women out of the vehicle, gave a gun to one of the friends, and said, “better make sure they’re dead.” The other man shot Black and Jackson in the chest and back, and shot Chinn in the back of the head, killing all three women. On Oct.11, 2000, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland found Higgs guilty of numerous federal offenses, including three counts of first-degree premeditated murder, three counts of first-degree felony murder, and three counts of kidnapping resulting in death, and unanimously recommended nine death sentences, which the court imposed. Higgs’ convictions and sentences were affirmed on appeal nearly 17 years ago, and his initial round of collateral challenges failed nearly eight years ago. Higgs is scheduled to be executed on Jan. 15, 2021.