MARYLAND (January 15, 2021)—today Poughkeepsie native Dustin Higgs is slated to be executed.
Dustin Higgs, convicted in the 1996 murders of three women in Maryland, is scheduled to become the 13th and final person to be executed by federal officials before President Donald Trump’s term in office expires.
Higgs’ lawyers have asked Trump to grant clemency, and have argued the penalty Higgs faces is more severe than the man who pulled the trigger in the three shootings.
The lawyers pointed to Higgs’ Poughkeepsie upbringing in their petition, stating the Maryland federal court jury that sentenced him to death never learned Higgs had spent his early years in a poor, violence-plagued neighborhood; that he watched his rarely-present biological father deal drugs and abuse his alcohol-dependent mother, who died of cancer when he was still a child; or that extensive school records showed Higgs had significant intellectual and social impairment.
Higgs’ lawyers have asked for a 90-day stay of execution for hearings, and have asked that his death sentence be commuted.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, between 1927 and the 2003, federal authorities executed a total of 37 death-row inmates. No death sentence had been carried out since 2003. Then, over the summer of 2020, Trump and then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced that executions would resume. Since then federal officials have executed 12 people.
“There is no principled basis to execute Dustin Higgs given that the shooter in this case is serving a life sentence and the trial prosecutors actively misled the jury in Dustin’s case,” said Shawn Nolan, chief of the Capital Habeas Unit at the Federal Community Defenders for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, one of Higgs’ attorneys. “The government should not carry out yet another super-spreader execution in the heart of this global pandemic. The (Department of Justice) should withdraw Dustin’s execution date or President Trump should commute his death sentence. If they do not agree to withdraw the date, we will ask the courts to intervene.”
Higgs, 48, is slated to die on Friday at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, for the murders of Tamika Black, 19; Tanji Jackson, 21; and Mishann Chinn, 23; in Maryland.
Three men involved in crime
According to prosecutors as detailed in court records, Higgs, Willis Haynes and Victor Gloria drove the three women to an isolated area on federal land after one of the women threatened to get her friends to go after Higgs.
Haynes fatally shot all three women, according to court documents. Prosecutors argued at Higgs’ trial that Haynes acted under Higgs’ orders, and Gloria testified at trial that Higgs told Haynes to make sure the women were dead.
Haynes disputed that in a 2012 letter, saying he acted on impulse, and that Higgs only intended to drop off the women and drive away, leaving them alive. The letter was included in some of the appellate paperwork filed as defense lawyers attempted to get judges to reconsider Higgs’ death sentence.
Haynes, now 43, was convicted at a separate trial of murder and kidnapping, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 45 years. Higgs was sentenced to death.
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.
Childhood in troubled neighborhood
The clemency petition argues that at the sentencing phase of Higgs’ trial a defense expert who testified about Higgs’ history told the jurors Higgs had a “very normal” childhood, was an average student, and that there was no evidence he’d been abused. The expert had not obtained Higgs’ school records.
Higgs’ lawyers laid out what a thorough investigation revealed in their petition.
According to the petition: Higgs grew up in a poor neighborhood in Poughkeepsie, one riddled with drugs and gun violence. His father, never in a committed relationship with his mother, lived across the street with another woman, and was a violent man who sold drugs. When the father came to the household, he was verbally and physically abusive. Between the ages of 9 and 11, Higgs watched as his mother became ill from breast cancer, and tried to care for her. She died in the spring of 1982, and Higgs lived briefly with a family known to be drug users and dealers. After the school year ended, he moved in with an aunt, a strict disciplinarian who raised him with his cousins.
Higgs attended Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Hyde Park, where teachers described him as quiet, diligent, tying hard to overcome his learning disabilities; they said he was shy and “seemed lost.”
In the petition seeking executive clemency, Higgs’ lawyers made several arguments they say warranted commutation of his sentence to life without parole: The fact that he was not the shooter; his history of trauma and learning disabilities, which the jury did not hear; that Gloria, the cooperating witness, was suspect; that Higgs has adjusted well in prison and is no longer a threat, and has been a good father to his son, born just after his arrest.
Final appeal ongoing
According to Higgs’ lawyers, Gloria was inconsistent over time in his description of what he witnessed. For his testimony at Higgs’ and Haynes’ trials, Gloria got an 84-month sentence for acting as an accessory after the fact, but Higgs’ lawyers say he may have gotten more than that. Gloria was a suspect in an unrelated murder.
“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,” Higgs lawyers argued. “A federal death verdict should not rest on such a flimsy basis.”
The Baltimore Sun reported Higgs’ fate is up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which Thursday night rejected one of two appeals to halt his execution. Earlier in the week, the court had lifted temporary stays granted to Higgs and fellow death-row inmate Corey Johnson, 52, after both men were diagnosed with COVID-19.
Higgs’ remaining appeal is over how the federal government can implement a death sentence in a state where there is no death penalty. Maryland outlawed the death penalty in 2013. According to the writ filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, federal law requires in capital cases that the federal court “shall supervise implementation of the sentence in the manner prescribed by the law of the State in which the sentence is imposed.”