GREENBELT - Handing down the first federal death sentence in Maryland, a U.S. district judge called Dustin John Higgs "a cold-blooded killer" who deserves to die for ordering the murders of three Washington women.
Higgs stood impassively in the federal courtroom yesterday as Judge Peter J. Messitte ordered the 28-year-old Laurel man put to death - a punishment the U.S. government hasn't carried out in almost four decades, but appears poised to resume.
"There has been a lot of discussion nowadays about the death penalty and whether it is appropriate, often based on questions about whether the person actually committed the crime," Messitte said. "Here, there is no question."
The three women shot to death almost five years ago along an isolated road in Beltsville "will always be remembered as vibrant, young women whose lives were cut short," the judge told Higgs. "You will always be remembered as a cold-blooded killer."
The victims, Tanji Jackson, 21, Tamika Black, 19, and Mishann Chinn, 23, were shot to death at close range Jan. 27, 1996, on federal land in Prince George's County by another man who acted at Higgs' direction.
Before handing down the sentence, Messitte offered Higgs the chance to speak to the courtroom filled with relatives of the women. Higgs declined.
His attorneys, Harry J. Trainor of Upper Marlboro and Timothy J. Sullivan of College Park, made brief objections to the imposition of the death penalty. But federal rules required Messitte to follow the sentencing recommendation made in October by the all-male jury that convicted Higgs of first-degree murder and kidnapping.
"The appeals process begins today," Trainor said outside court.
It could be several years before Higgs faces an execution date. Until then, he will join the 20 inmates on federal death row at the U.S. Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Ind., where the death penalty is administered by lethal injection.
No federal prisoner has been executed since 1963, when an Iowa man was hanged for kidnapping and killing a doctor. The Supreme Court imposed a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty in the 1970s. It was lifted in 1976, but federal prosecutors did not begin seeking death sentences again until 1988, when Congress adopted a limited death penalty statute. The scope of the law was greatly expanded in 1994.
Advocates on both sides of the issue say it is likely that federal executions will resume under President-elect George W. Bush, who oversaw a record 40 state executions last year as Texas governor.
Several death row inmates are near the end of their appeals. Last week, a federal judge in Denver allowed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to drop his appeals and have an execution date set.
In addition to the death penalty, Higgs also was sentenced to 45 years for federal weapons charges related to the killings of the three women.
Trial testimony and court records showed that the women had been at a party with Higgs that night and accepted a ride home with him.
Angry because one of the women had rebuffed his advances and fearful of retaliation, Higgs handed his .38-caliber handgun to a friend along an isolated road in the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and told him, "Make sure they're all dead."
The trigger man, Willis Mark Haynes, 22, of Bowie, was convicted of murder and kidnapping last year. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 45 years after a separate jury spared him the death penalty.
Maryland U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said it is impossible to know why one jury chose death while a separate jury in the same case did not. But she called it the correct sentence for Higgs.
"I thought the judge said it very cogently and appropriately - that he is guilty and he is a murderer and the death penalty is appropriate in this case," Battaglia said yesterday.
Relatives of the victims said the death sentence and the judge's words offered some relief. Deborah Blue, Jackson's aunt, said she wanted to hear an apology or explanation from Higgs, but she said the sentence brought some closure to the case.
"It helps a little," Blue said. "Just a little bit, because we really miss Tanji."