The administration of US President Donald Trump has carried out its 13th federal execution since July, an unprecedented race that ended just five days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden – an opponent of the federal death penalty.
Dustin Higgs, convicted of murdering three women at a Maryland wildlife refuge in 1996, was the third to receive a lethal injection this week at federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Trump’s Justice Department resumed federal executions last year after a 17-year hiatus. No president in more than 120 years has overseen so many federal executions.
Higgs, 48, was pronounced dead at 1:23 a.m. local time on Saturday (8:23 p.m. GMT Friday).
The number of federal death sentences executed under Trump since 2020 is higher than the previous 56 years combined, reducing the number of federal death row inmates by nearly a quarter.
None of the remaining 50 or so men are likely to be executed anytime soon, with Biden signaling he will end federal executions.
The only woman on death row, Lisa Montgomery, was executed on Wednesday for killing a pregnant woman, then cutting the baby off her womb and claiming it as her own.
She was the first woman executed in almost 70 years.
Federal executions have begun as the coronavirus pandemic rages through prisons across the country. Among the prisoners who received COVID-19 last month were Higgs and former drug dealer Corey Johnson, who was executed Thursday.
Some members of the enforcement teams have also already tested positive for the virus.
Execution during transition
It’s not since the final days of Grover Cleveland’s presidency in the late 1800s that the U.S. government has executed federal inmates during a presidential transition, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Cleveland was also the last presidency in which the number of federally executed civilians was in double digits in one year, 1896, during Cleveland’s second term.
In October 2000, a federal jury in Maryland found Higgs guilty of first degree murder and kidnapping in the murders of 19-year-old Tamika Black; Mishann Chinn, 23; and Tanji Jackson, 21.
His death sentence was the first in modern times for Maryland’s federal system, which abolished the death penalty in 2013.
Higgs’ attorneys have argued that it was “arbitrary and unfair” to execute Higgs while Willis Haynes, the man who fired the shots that killed the women, escaped the death penalty.
The federal judge who presided over Higgs’ trial two decades ago said he “deserves little compassion.”
“He was given a fair trial and was found guilty and sentenced to death by a unanimous jury for a despicable crime,” wrote US District Judge Peter Messitte in a December 29 decision.
In a post-execution statement, Higgs’ attorney Shawn Nolan said his client had spent decades on death row helping other inmates and “working tirelessly to fight his wrongful convictions” .
“The government completed its unprecedented slaughter of 13 human beings tonight by killing Dustin Higgs, a black man who never killed anyone, on Martin Luther King’s birthday,” Nolan said.
“There was no reason to kill him, especially during the pandemic and when he himself was sick with the COVID he had contracted from those irresponsible and super-propagative executions.
Request for leniency
Higgs’ clemency petition of December 19 claimed he had been a model prisoner and a devoted father to a son born soon after his arrest.
Higgs had a traumatic childhood and lost his mother to cancer at the age of 10, according to the petition.
“Mr. Higgs’ difficult upbringing was not presented in any meaningful way to the jury at trial,” his lawyers wrote.