Dustin John Higgs (March 10, 1972 – January 16, 2021) was an American man who was executed by the United States federal government, having been convicted and sentenced to death in 2000 for his role in the January 1996 murders of three women in Maryland. Tamika Black, Tanji Jackson, and Mishann Chinn were all shot and killed near the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, on the Patuxent Research Refuge in Prince George's County, Maryland. Because this is classed as federal land, he was tried by the federal government rather than by the state of Maryland. His case, conviction, and execution were the subject of multiple controversies.
Dustin John Higgs
March 10, 1972
Poughkeepsie, New York, U.S.
|Died||January 16, 2021 (aged 48)|
|Cause of death||Execution by lethal injection|
|Criminal penalty||Death (October 26, 2000)|
|Partner(s)||Willis Mark Haynes|
|Victims||Tamika Black (aged 19)|
Tanji Jackson (aged 21)
Mishann Chinn (aged 23)
|Date||January 27, 1996|
|Imprisoned at||United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute|
The main contention was that Higgs did not personally kill any of the three victims, but waited in a vehicle nearby. The man who shot them, Willis Mark Haynes, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole plus 45 years. The prosecution argued that although Higgs did not kill anyone, he was the ringleader, ordering and bullying Haynes. Higgs and his defense team maintained his innocence to the end, arguing that although he was involved, he was merely a witness, and was set up by Haynes and another witness, Victor Gloria. In 2012, Haynes swore in an affidavit that Higgs did not force or threaten him into killing any of the victims.
Higgs was executed via lethal injection on January 16, 2021, becoming the thirteenth and final person executed by the federal government during the presidency of Donald Trump, when federal executions returned after a 17-year hiatus.
Dustin John Higgs was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on March 10, 1972, to Alfonso Higgs and Marilyn M. Bennett (1945–1982). When Dustin was 8, Marilyn was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1982 when he was 10. Friends and relatives saw a big change in his mood after this. He moved to Laurel, Maryland, in 1991. His son was born shortly after his arrest.[which?]
On the evening of January 26, 1996, Higgs, Willis Haynes and Victor Gloria drove from Higgs' apartment in Laurel, Maryland, to Washington, D.C., to pick up Tamika Black, Tanji Jackson and Mishann Chinn. Dates had been arranged for each of the men and women and the groups had agreed to meet and hang out together. The six of them traveled in Higgs' vehicle, a blue Mazda MPV van, and returned to his apartment to drink alcohol, smoke marijuana and listen to music. The partying continued into the early hours of January 27.
At some point during the night, an argument broke out and the women left the apartment. Higgs, Haynes and Gloria then headed out after them, with Higgs driving his own vehicle and Haynes sitting in the front passenger seat. Gloria was sitting in the back of the van behind Higgs. Higgs drove his van to the side of the road where the women were walking. They offered the women a ride home, which they willingly accepted. The women got into the back of the vehicle and Higgs drove out of Laurel. Neighbors in the area reported hearing and seeing the three women laughing and talking in the early hours of that morning.
Higgs drove his van along a state road on to the Patuxent Research Refuge and stopped the vehicle near the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. The women got out of the van and Haynes exited the vehicle. Haynes then fatally shot each of the three women with a silver .38 caliber pistol before returning to the van and closing the door. The gun was then thrown into the Anacostia River. Early on January 27, a passing motorist found the women's bodies and contacted the Park Police. Jackson's day planner was found at the scene with Higgs' nickname and telephone number recorded in it. According to the medical examiner, Jackson and Black had each been shot once in the chest and once in the back. Chinn had been shot once in the back of the head.
Fraud investigation and drug trafficking conviction
The murders went unsolved for nearly three years. Higgs was first questioned about them in March 1996 at his apartment. He acknowledged that he had known Jackson and had talked to her the night before she died. He was arrested and his apartment searched, as he was suspected of an unrelated bank fraud violation. Police found cocaine and firearms in his apartment. On May 12, 1997, he pled guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine. He was sentenced to 17 years in a federal prison.
Revelation and murder trial
In October 1998, Gloria and Haynes were arrested on unrelated drug charges. After being questioned, police learned of more details surrounding the murders. On December 21, Higgs and Haynes were indicted by a federal grand jury on murder charges. Higgs was already in custody at the time, serving his 17-year trafficking sentence.
After this revelation, Higgs and Haynes were tried separately in 2000. Gloria pleaded guilty to being an accessory-after-the-fact to the killings, and in exchange for testimony against Higgs and Haynes, was sentenced to seven years in prison. His testimony was the main piece of evidence presented in Higgs' trial.
The prosecution's version of events was that Higgs got into a heated argument with Tanji Jackson at his apartment on the evening of January 26, 1996. Jackson had supposedly taken a knife from the kitchen and threatened Higgs after she rejected his alleged sexual advances towards her. After the argument, the women left the apartment enraged. According to Gloria, Jackson made some kind of threat as she left the apartment. As Higgs watched the women leave, he saw Jackson appear to write down his license plate number. According to Gloria, this angered Higgs, who was concerned she knew people who may retaliate against him.
The men then left the apartment and headed after them in Higgs' van. They pulled over and offered the women a ride home, which they accepted. The prosecution accepts that they were not forced into the vehicle or taken against their will. Higgs did not drive the correct way back to Washington, D.C., and instead drove to the Patuxent Research Refuge. Higgs pulled over at a secluded location and ordered the women out of the van. The women then asked if they were being forced to walk home to which Higgs responded, "something like that." As the women got out of the van, Higgs took out a handgun and handed it to Haynes. According to Haynes' testimony, Higgs then said to him "better make sure they're dead". Haynes then exited the van and Gloria heard gunshots. He witnessed Haynes shoot one of the women in the chest. After the women were killed and the gun was disposed of, Higgs drove back to his apartment with Haynes and Gloria. Gloria was later dropped off at a fast-food restaurant, where he was told to keep his mouth shut.
The defense argued that Higgs' alleged reason for wanting the women killed — Jackson rejecting his sexual advances and possibly knowing people who may have retaliated against him — was a very weak motive for ordering three murders. They said the idea that the women willingly got into the van for a lift home also contradicted the idea that Jackson was angry at Higgs and would seek revenge. The defense claims that the real reason the women were killed was because they owed Haynes and some of his associates drug money. Two inmates at the Charles County Detention Center said Haynes had claimed to them to have a much bigger role in the killings. One argued Haynes was more of a partner to Higgs than someone who followed orders. One said the victims owed him drug money and that Haynes "had to kill" one of the women because she had been trying to set him up.
Higgs' lawyer said he only learned of the witnesses after reviewing Haynes' trial record, by which time Higgs had already been sentenced to death. The evidence would supposedly have made both Haynes and Higgs equally culpable in the eyes of the jury, and the failure to provide the statements violated the Brady rule. According to the defense, both Gloria and Haynes repeatedly changed their stories, with Haynes admitting in 2012 in a sworn affidavit that Higgs had not forced or bullied him into doing anything, something the prosecution had claimed at Higgs' trial.
Ultimately, Higgs and Haynes were found guilty of the murders. On August 24, 2000, Haynes was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 45 years. The federal judge at Haynes' trial claimed he had shown no remorse for the killings. He was incarcerated at United States Penitentiary, Beaumont. Haynes' Federal Bureau of Prisons register number was #35389-037.
On October 26, Higgs was sentenced to death, becoming the first person from Maryland to be sentenced to death in the federal court system. He was incarcerated at United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute.
On November 22, Gloria was sentenced to eighty-four months in a federal prison. He was released on February 4, 2006, serving a total of just over five years and two months in prison. Gloria's Federal Bureau of Prisons register number was #35417-037.
Disapproval of result
Multiple controversies surround Higgs' case. Firstly, he was sentenced to death despite not personally shooting or killing any of the three women. The case against him was mainly built on the testimonies of Gloria and Haynes, who had both cut deals and changed their stories multiple times. The fact the murders were committed on federal land further complicated things. Higgs was tried by the federal government rather than by the state of Maryland. Had the murders occurred farther down the road, the women would not have been killed on the Patuxent Research Refuge, and Higgs would have been tried by the state of Maryland instead of by the federal government. If he had been tried by the state of Maryland, based on state law, he would not have been eligible for the death penalty. The state of Maryland also abolished the death penalty in 2013, with all remaining death row inmates resentenced to life without parole. Prior to the abolition, the last execution in Maryland occurred in 2005, when Wesley Baker was executed for the June 1991 murder of 49-year-old Jane Tyson. Had Higgs been tried by Maryland, he would have escaped execution and instead received another sentence for soliciting the murders. Even had he been sentenced to death, he would have had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment without parole, like all the other death row inmates in Maryland, provided that his execution did not take place before Maryland's abolition of the death penalty.
The execution was controversial, in part because Higgs was executed during a lame-duck period. He had also tested positive for COVID-19 a few weeks prior. Higgs's attorney raised the concern that COVID would cause him lung damage, and during the execution, he would experience "a sensation of drowning akin to waterboarding". The execution was postponed by a federal judge's ruling on January 12. The Supreme Court voted 6 to 3, late on January 15, to let it proceed.
At 1:23 a.m. on January 16, 2021, Higgs, 48, was executed by lethal injection of pentobarbital at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. His last words were "I'd like to say I am an innocent man. I did not order the murders." He mentioned each of the three murder victims by name. He became the third and last inmate to be executed by the U.S. federal government in January, after convicted murderers Lisa Marie Montgomery and Corey Johnson, who were executed on January 13 and 14, respectively.
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