Innocent Man on Death Row: The Dustin Higgs Case


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In a recent trend,

the U.S Department of Justice is placing an unusual emphasis upon performing the executions of federal prisoners on death row. This focus comes directly from President Donald Trump’s wishes to carry out as many executions as possible before Joe Biden takes office on January 20th. With 10 executions being carried out in a five-month period, the Trump administration is performing executions at a rate the United States has not witnessed in over a hundred years. On January 15th, this figure is set to increase.  Dustin Higgs is sentenced to die for the murders of Tamika Black, Mishann Chinn, and Tanji Jackson. The problem? He did not kill them.

In January 1996,

Willis Mark Haynes, Dustin Higgs, and Victor Gloria drove to Washington, D.C. There they met with Black, Chinn, and Jackson, and together the six returned to Higgs’ apartment in Laurel, Maryland. While at the apartment Higgs expressed interest in Jackson, which she spurned. At which point, the women decided to leave. Soon after they were pursued by Higgs and his two friends who offered the ladies a ride back home. The women accepted the proposition.  Yet instead of being returned home safely, they were brought to a remote area in the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge. There Higgs told the three to exit the vehicle, at which point he gave Haynes a gun and told him “better make sure they’re dead.” A jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland sentenced Higgs on October 11, 2000. The Court found him guilty of three counts of kidnapping resulting in death, three counts of first-degree premeditated murder, and three counts of first-degree felony murder. Nine death sentences were recommended and imposed.

The man who committed the murders,

Willis Mark Hayes, was sentenced to life plus 45 years. Yet Higgs, who remained in his vehicle during the heinous act, was awarded the death penalty. The prosecution argues that Hayes was bullied into committing the deed by Higgs, a claim that Higgs denies. Higgs believes that he was set up by Hayes and Gloria. As Gloria was cut a plea deal he had an incentive to shift the blame upon Higgs.  In exchange for his testimony against Higgs, Gloria’s sentence was lightened to merely seven years in prison. Nonetheless, Higgs and his defense remain steadfast in their claim that he is innocent. Not a murderer, merely a witness to the crime.

Just last year,

the Trump Administration ordered the deaths of Higgs and a number of other federal inmates. This marks the first time in 17 years that federal inmates have been put to death. (The last was in 2003 with the execution of Louis Jones.)  Higgs has entreated the president for clemency and The Action Network has set up a petition advocating justice for Higgs.  As articulated by Higgs’ attorney, Sean Nolan, it would be “arbitrary and inequitable to punish Mr. Higgs more severely than the person who committed the murders.”

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