Dustin John Higgs, 48, was executed by lethal injection on Friday but new reports claim it was rushed through by a mystery execution team who carry out three in a week
The federal execution of convicted murderer Dustin John Higgs had been fast-tracked due to a discount deal with a mystery killing squad, according to new reports.
Higgs, 48, was pronounced dead at 1.23am on Saturday after receiving a lethal injection of pentobarbital in the federal death chamber at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
The prison had allegedly rushed to carry out the execution Saturday after receiving a cost-saving offer from the unidentified killing team to carry out three in a week, according to The Sun.
It marked the third federal execution at Terre Haute in four days, after womb raider Lisa Montgomery was put to death on Wednesday and convicted drug trafficker Corey Johnson on Thursday.
Higgs was found guilty of conspiring with two other men to kidnap and murder three young women in Washington DC on one night in January 1996.
His defense team won a temporary stay on his execution this week after he and Johnson tested positive for COVID-10 last month.
Defense attorneys claimed the 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.
Executed this week (left to right): Lisa Marie Montgomery and Corey Johnson. According to Higgs’ attorney, they were all executed this week as part of a cost-saving deal
The U.S. Penitentiary at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana on Friday
Shawn Nolan, one of Higgs’ attorneys, told The Sun that it was no coincidence the three executions were all rushed together in one week, claiming that it was a result of the deal offered by outside contractors.
Yet Nolan also revealed that the defense team was not allowed any further information on the killing team.
‘In several cases they have executed two or three prisoners in the same week and they do this because they use outside contractors who come in to do the executions,’ he said.
‘They [federal prison authorities] say they schedule two to three a week because they pay them for a week.
‘They won’t tell us who they are. We don’t know who they are… They are an execution team.’
Nolan also claimed that it was the mystery execution squad who had been responsible for the outbreak of COVID-19 in the prison in the first place, after positive cases were identified after they carried out earlier sentences.
‘We have argued that these executions are super spreader events because they bring in outside people,’ he said.
Higgs’ execution marked the final death sentence to be completed by the Department of Justice under President Donald Trump.
It was also the 13th execution during Trump’s term after he resumed executions in July despite the pandemic, making him the most prolific president in carrying out death sentences since Grover Cleveland in the 1800s.
The recent spree of executions is also the first time since Cleveland’s term that a federal execution was carried out during the lame-duck period of a presidency.
Higgs is seen in 2015 at the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Higgs is the last federal inmate facing execution before President Donald Trump leaves office
Alfred Bourgeois was executed on December 11. The 56-year-old had been on death row since his 2004 conviction for killing 2-year-old daughter despite protesting his innoncence
Trump resumed federal executions in July after a 17-year hiatus, although they had still been carried out at the state level.
President-elect Joe Biden is an opponent of the death penalty and is expected to suspend federal executions when he takes office next week.
Nolan had previouslt said he sees a clear political agenda in the unprecedented string of federal executions at the end of Trump’s presidency, with Higgs heading to the death chamber just five days before Biden’s inauguration.
Higgs’ lawyers had argued it is ‘arbitrary and inequitable’ to execute Higgs while Willis Haynes, the man who pulled the trigger in the murders, was spared a death sentence.
In his final words, Higgs protested that he was innocent of masterminding the murders.
‘I’d like to say I am an innocent man,’ he said, strapped to the gurney in the execution chamber. ‘I did not order the murders.’
The interior of the execution chamber in the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute is seen above. Higgs was strapped to the gurney and injected with pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate
Trump has overseen 13 executions after he resumed executions in July despite the pandemic, making him the most prolific president in carrying out death sentences since Grover Cleveland
As the injection was administered, loud sobs of a woman crying inconsolably echoed for several minutes from a room reserved for Higgs’ family, as his eyes rolled back in his head, showing the whites of his eyes before he stopped moving entirely.
Yet, 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 December 29 ruling.
‘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 recently. ‘And particularly for Dustin, who didn’t shoot anybody. He didn’t kill anybody.’
Higgs’ December 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’ difficult upbringing was not meaningfully presented to the jury at trial,’ his attorneys wrote.
His death sentence was the first imposed in the modern era of the federal system in Maryland, which abolished the death penalty in 2013.
An activist in opposition to the death penalty protests during a snowstorm outside of the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana on Thursday ahead of Johnson’s death
Higgs’ shocking crimes: How he conspired to kidnap and kill three women after an argument during a triple-date
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.
Higgs was 23 on the evening of January 26, 1996, when he, Willis Haynes and a third man, Victor Gloria, picked up the three women in Washington, DC, and drove them to Higgs’ apartment in Laurel, Maryland, to drink alcohol and listen to music.
The men smoked pot late into the night, and before dawn the next morning an argument between Higgs and Tanji prompted her to grab a knife in the kitchen before Haynes persuaded her to drop it.
‘I am going to get you all f***ed up or robbed!’ Tanji shouted, according to Gloria’s testimony. In response, Higgs remarked to the other men that Tamika ‘do know a lot of n*****s.’
As Tamika left the apartment with the other women, she appeared to write down the license plate number of Higgs’ van, angering him, and the three women stormed off on foot.
The three men chased after the women in Higgs’ van, a blue Mazda MPV. 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.
Higgs drove the three women to a secluded spot in the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge (seen in a file photo) and handed his friend Willis Haynes a gun to kill them
‘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’ 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’ 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 must 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.
An activist in opposition to the death penalty protests during a snowstorm outside of the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana on Thursday ahead of Higgs’ execution
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.’
Mishann worked with the children’s choir at a church, Tanji worked in the office at a high school and Tamika was a teacher’s aide at National Presbyterian School in Washington, according to the Washington Post.
On the day in 2001 when the judge formally sentenced Higgs to death, Tamika’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.’
How Trump used his final days to put to death the most federal prisoners since the 1880s
The number of federal death sentences carried out under Trump since 2020 is more than in the previous 56 years combined, reducing the number of prisoners on federal death row by nearly a quarter.
It’s likely none of the around 50 remaining men will be executed anytime soon, with Biden signaling he’ll end federal executions.
The only woman on death row, Lisa Montgomery, was executed Wednesday for killing a pregnant woman, then cutting the baby out of her womb and claiming it as her own. She was the first woman executed in nearly 70 years.
Federal executions began as the coronavirus pandemic raged through prisons nationwide. Among those prisoners who got COVID-19 last month were Higgs and former drug trafficker Corey Johnson, who was executed Thursday.
Some members of the execution teams have also previously tested positive for the virus.
Not since the waning days of Grover Cleveland’s presidency in the late 1800s has the U.S. government executed federal inmates during a presidential transition, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Cleveland´s was also the last presidency during which the number of civilians executed federally was in the double digits in one year, 1896, during Cleveland´s second term.
The Trump administration has paid private executioners in cash and bought drugs from a secret pharmacy as part of a rush to execute federal prisoners, court documents obtained by ProPublica reveal.
The court records, were reported in December, shed light on how the Trump administration is hurrying to use its final days to execute the federal inmates.
Among the details included in court records are that private executioners have been paid in cash, drugs have been purchased from a pharmacy that failed quality tests and that executions have moved ahead in the middle of the night.
It is not clear why private contractors were hired to carry out the executions. A Bureau of Prisons lawyer was quoted in a deposition saying: ‘If we didn’t pay them in cash they probably wouldn’t participate’.
One execution has gone ahead while an appeal was still pending.
Authorities also left Daniel Lewis Lee, who was the first federal inmate executed in July, strapped to a gurney while lawyers tried to remove a Supreme Court order, the court documents show.
He was executed as soon as the government lawyers wiped out the legal obstacle.
‘Today, Lee finally faced the justice he deserved,’ Barr said in a statement at the time.
The White House has not commented on ProPublica’s report regarding the rush to execute the inmates.
In a statement, the Justice Department said: ‘Seeking the death penalty and carrying out capital sentences is not a political issue, nor have political considerations influenced the department’s decisions.
‘The death penalty is a law enforcement and public safety issue, and the department is obligated to carry forward these sentences regardless of who is the president or the attorney general.’