GREENBELT - A Laurel man is expected today to receive Maryland's first federal death sentence as the U.S. government steadily moves closer to its first execution since John F. Kennedy was in the White House.
Dustin John Higgs is to be sentenced for his role in the shooting deaths of three young Washington women in January 1996. A jury recommended last fall that Higgs receive the death penalty. U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte will formally impose the sentence today, as required by law.
Higgs, 28, would be the first person from Maryland sentenced to death in the federal court system, which has 20 inmates awaiting execution but no prisoner put to death since Victor Feguer was hanged in 1963 for kidnapping and killing a doctor in Iowa.
That is expected to change as several federal death row inmates exhaust their appeals this year and as the administration change in Washington reduces the likelihood of a moratorium on federal executions, as some death penalty opponents have urged.
"I think it's pretty safe to say there will be" a federal execution in the near future, said Michael D. Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit group in Sacramento, Calif., that supports the death penalty.
The first federal inmate to face execution in almost four decades could be one of the nation's most notorious. A federal judge in Denver last week agreed to let Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh drop his appeals and face execution in the next four to six months. McVeigh has until Jan. 11 to change his mind.
Convicted killer Juan Raul Garza of Texas had been scheduled to die by lethal injection in November. But President Clinton signed a six-month reprieve five days before Garza was scheduled to be executed. Clinton has rejected calls for a moratorium, but in granting Garza's reprieve said more study was needed about possible racial and regional disparities in federal death penalty cases.
A Justice Department review released in September showed that minorities make up 80 percent of federal death row inmates and 74 percent of defendants in federal death penalty cases. The review also showed that U.S. attorneys from a few states - including Texas, Virginia and Missouri - were more likely to seek the death penalty than federal prosecutors in other states.
President-elect George W. Bush indicated at a news conference last month with his nominee for attorney general, former Missouri Sen. John D. Ashcroft, that he does not think a moratorium is needed.
As Texas governor, Bush oversaw 40 executions in 2000 - the most for any state in a single year - and advocates on both sides of the issue expect him to be unflinching about applying federal death penalty statutes.
"I guess I don't see it likely that President-elect Bush and whoever the attorney general will be is going to impose a moratorium," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Still, Dieter said the issue will not go away quietly. Even without adopting a moratorium, "there's going to be some care taken to make sure this big step ... is carefully inspected before it takes place," he said.
Between 1927 and 1963, the federal government executed 34 people - none from Maryland. And while states have executed hundreds of people since the Supreme Court lifted a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty in 1976, no federal inmates have been put to death.
Federal prosecutors couldn't seek death sentences again until 1988, when Congress adopted a new death penalty statute for drug kingpins. In 1994, lawmakers expanded the federal death penalty to include kidnapping resulting in death and several other crimes.
Higgs, who grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and moved to Maryland in 1991, was prosecuted under federal statutes because the three women were shot to death on federal land in the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Prince George's County.
Court records and trial testimony showed that the women had left a party five years ago this month with Higgs, thinking he would drive them home. Instead, Higgs drove to the desolate area.
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, also was convicted last year of murder and kidnapping. But after a separate jury could not decide whether to recommend the death penalty, Haynes was sentenced Aug. 24 to life in prison without parole, plus 45 years.
A third defendant, Victor Glorio, pleaded guilty in December 1998 to being an accessory after the fact and helped prosecutors build their case against Haynes and Higgs.