The U.S. government intends to carry out the 13th and final execution under President Donald Trump’s administration on Friday evening, just five days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office with a promise to try to end the death penalty.
Dustin Higgs, 48, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2001 for overseeing the kidnapping and murder of three women on a federal wildlife reserve in Maryland in 1996: Tanji Jackson, Tamika Black and Mishann Chinn.
If it can surmount the final remaining legal challenges, the U.S. Department of Justice plans to execute him at 6 p.m. with lethal injections of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, at its death chamber in its prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
It would be the 13th execution by the U.S. government in an extraordinary spree begun last summer by Trump, a Republican and avowed exponent of capital punishment, after a 17-year hiatus. Prior to Trump, the federal government had executed only three people since 1963.
After a failed triple date with the three women, Higgs and his accomplice, Willis Haynes, offered to drive them home but instead took them to the Patuxent Research Refuge. Prosecutors said Higgs gave Haynes a gun and told him to shoot the three women. Haynes, who confessed to being the shooter, was sentenced to life in prison, while Higgs was sentenced to death in a separate trial, a disparity that his lawyers say is grounds for clemency.
The Justice Department has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn an order by a lower court delaying the execution while a legal question is resolved: federal law requires that an execution be carried out in the manner of the state in which the condemned was sentenced, but Maryland has since abolished the death penalty.
The Justice Department unsuccessfully sought a new sentencing order from a federal judge in Maryland to allow them to execute Higgs following the procedures used in Indiana, a state that still allows lethal injections and that is home to the department’s execution chamber.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has since scheduled a hearing on the matter for Jan. 27, nearly two weeks after Higgs’ scheduled execution, which the Justice Department says has left it hamstrung unless the Supreme Court overturns the delay.
Higgs’ lawyers also sought a stay of execution from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to allow him to air his claim that the government suppressed evidence at his trial, but the appeals court ruled on Friday that there were insufficient grounds for delay. His lawyers may challenge that ruling in the Supreme Court in the final hours before his scheduled execution time.
Higgs and another death row inmate, Corey Johnson, were diagnosed with COVID-19 in December, but on Wednesday the Supreme Court rejected an order by a federal judge in Washington delaying their executions for several weeks to allow their lungs to heal. The Justice Department executed Johnson on Thursday night.
The Supreme Court’s conservative majority has so far dismissed any orders by lower courts delaying federal executions since they were resumed last year.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Daniel Wallis)