GREENBELT - A Laurel man convicted of ordering the execution-style killings of three Washington women became the first person from Maryland sentenced to death in the federal court system.
Dustin John Higgs, 28, did not react as the jury foreman read the sentence aloud yesterday in U.S. District Court here. Members of the victims' families, who filled the courtroom, silently nodded and wept at the close of the case which has stretched on for almost four years.
"The community obviously feels your grief and, in some small way, the community shares your pain," Judge Peter J. Messitte told the victims' relatives.
To the defendant, the judge said: "Mr. Higgs, your day of reckoning has come."
Messitte scheduled formal sentencing for Dec. 15. Defense attorneys said they would pursue all appeals. But during that process, Higgs will become the first Maryland resident on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind., where 20 other inmates are awaiting execution by lethal injection.
"It's a very sad ending to a very sad case," said defense attorney Harry J. Trainor Jr. of Upper Marlboro, who with attorney Timothy J. Sullivan of College Park represented Higgs.
The all-male jury deliberated nearly eight hours over two days before reaching its decision in the penalty phase of Higgs' trial. The same 12 jurors convicted Higgs this month on three counts of first-degree murder and kidnapping in the slayings of Tanji Jackson, 21; Tamika Black, 19; and Mishann Chinn, 23.
The women were shot to death slightly after 4 a.m. Jan. 27, 1996, along an isolated stretch of Route 197 in the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, federally owned land in Prince George's County.
Trial testimony showed that they had left a party that night with Higgs and another man, thinking he was going to drive them home. Instead, Higgs drove to the desolate stretch of road.
Angry because one of the women had rebuffed his advances and fearful that she would retaliate against him, Higgs handed his .38-caliber handgun to a friend in the vehicle and told him to, "Make sure they're all dead," according to trial testimony.
The triggerman, Willis Mark Haynes, 22, of Bowie, was convicted of murder and kidnapping this year. In his case, the jury spared him the death penalty. He was sentenced Aug. 24 to life in prison without parole, plus 45 years.
While states have executed hundreds of people since the Supreme Court lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in 1976, no federal prisoner has been executed since 1963. Between 1927 and 1963, the federal government executed 34 people - none from Maryland.
Federal prosecutors started seeking death sentences again beginning in 1988, when a new death penalty statute was approved for drug kingpins.
In 1994, Congress expanded the federal death penalty to include kidnapping resulting in death and other crimes.
Sixth case in Maryland
Higgs' case marked the sixth in Maryland since 1995 in which federal prosecutors were authorized by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to seek the death penalty.
In the earlier cases, jurors rejected the death penalty or the defendant received a lesser sentence as part of a plea agreement.
In reaching its decision in Higgs' case, the jury rejected defense arguments that Higgs had been deeply affected by the death of his mother as a young boy and abandonment by his father, according to the jury's verdict form.
Jurors also rejected the argument that Higgs should not receive the death penalty because Haynes was not sentenced to death.
Sentence called appropriate
In Baltimore, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Schenning called the Greenbelt jury's decision the appropriate sentence in the triple-murder.
"We're very gratified that the jury worked real hard and listened to both sides," Schenning said.
The case was tried by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Deborah A. Johnston and Sandra Wilkinson, who declined to comment.
Outside the courtroom, the two prosecutors were embraced by relatives of the three victims, well-liked young women who had been active in their community.
Black was a teacher's aide at a private school in Washington, Jackson worked at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, and Chinn worked with a Temple Hill children's choir.
Families find some relief
Their families called the jury's sentence a relief.
"There is no joy," said Krishana Chinn, Mishann's mother. "You just feel justice. It won't bring our children back, but we are relieved that justice was served."
Chinn said the families had waited some "1,700 days" for the case to finally be resolved. She said she only regretted that the defendants had shown little remorse for the crimes.
"You at least want to feel sometime that maybe they were sorry," Chinn told reporters. "But we never saw any remorse."
"As terrible as this crime was, I thank God that justice was served," said Joyce Gaston, mother of Tamika Black. "He ordered my daughter's death, and I think it's only appropriate that his death is ordered."