Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has slammed the Trump administration’s federal execution spree saying ‘this is not justice’, as convicted killer Dustin Higgs became the 13th person put to death since July.
Sotomayor issued a scathing written dissent Friday after the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 in favor of plowing ahead with Higgs’ execution despite his lawyers pleaded for clemency after he caught COVID-19.
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.
Higgs conspired with two other men to kidnap and murder three young women in Washington DC on one night in January 1996.
His federal execution marks the 13th and final to be completed by the Department of Justice under President Donald Trump after a 17-year hiatus.
Trump will go down in history as the most prolific modern president for carrying out death sentences as he rushed through the death sentences in his final six months in power.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (above) has slammed the Trump administration’s federal execution spree saying ‘this is not justice’, as convicted killer Dustin Higgs became the 13th person put to death since July
Sotomayor, who dissented the Supreme Court majority’s decision along with Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, wrote a dissent where she blasted the Trump administration for executing ‘more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades.’
‘After seventeen years without a single federal execution, the Government has executed twelve people since July,’ she wrote.
‘They are Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken, Lezmond Mitchell, Keith Nelson, William LeCroy Jr., Christopher Vialva, Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois, Lisa Montgomery, and, just last night, Corey Johnson.’
‘Today, Dustin Higgs will become the thirteenth,’ she said.
Sotomayer hit out at the Department of Justice saying it ‘did not tread carefully’ and had created ‘legal uncertainty’.
She also criticized her fellow justices on the Supreme Court who, through rulings such as Higgs’, have enabled the ‘spree of executions’.
‘Throughout this expedited spree of executions, this Court has consistently rejected inmates’ credible claims for relief,’ Sotomayor wrote.
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
She said her colleagues had lifted stays of execution and made ‘weighty decisions’ without time for ‘proper briefing and consideration’.
‘The Court has even intervened to lift stays of execution that lower courts put in place, thereby ensuring those prisoners’ challenges would never receive a meaningful airing,’ she wrote.
‘The Court made these weighty decisions in response to emergency applications, with little opportunity for proper briefing and consideration, often in just a few short days or even hours.
‘Very few of these decisions offered any public explanation for their rationale.’
She added: ‘This is not justice.’
Higgs’ was the 13th federal execution under Trump’s watch
Higgs was executed soon after the court’s ruling.
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.’
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.
It marked the third federal execution at Terre Haute in four days, and the 13th 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.
Higgs’ lawyers argued it was ‘arbitrary and inequitable’ to execute him while Willis Haynes, the man who pulled the trigger in the murders, was spared a death sentence.
Higgs and an inmate executed on Thursday, Corey Johnson, both had COVID-19 last month.
Higgs is seen in 2015 at the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Higgs is the last federal inmate to be executed before President Donald Trump leaves office
The United States Penitentiary at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana is seen on Friday
The recent spree of executions is also the first time since Celveland’s term that a federal execution was carried out during the lame-duck period of a presidency.
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.
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.
Defense attorneys won temporary stays of execution this week for Higgs and Johnson after arguing that their recent COVID-19 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, and Johnson was executed Thursday night.
Shawn Nolan, one of Higgs’ attorneys, 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.
An activist in opposition to the death penalty protests during a snowstorm outside of the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana on Thursday
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
‘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.
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
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.’