Under President Donald Trump’s directive, the U.S. Department of Justice has been working hard to put eligible federal prisoners to death between now and Jan. 20 when Joe Biden is sworn in as the nation’s 46th president. Where death sentences have become uncommon at the state level, the Trump administration is on track to set a modern day record for federal civilian executions with 10 in a five-month period this year — the most since the 1800s — and several more scheduled in the coming weeks. One of those cases hits close to home: Dustin John Higgs, who is Black and was convicted 20 years ago in the shooting deaths of three women in Laurel is now scheduled to be killed on Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
This newspaper has long opposed capital punishment. History has established repeatedly that it isn’t applied fairly and without racial bias nor is it an effective deterrent. Maryland wisely outlawed the death penalty seven years ago. Two-thirds of states have either abolished the death penalty (22 states and D.C. and counting) in a similar manner or simply have not conducted an execution over the last 10 years (12 other states). Life in prison without the possibility of parole is a far more just outcome for even the most heinous of offenders. The U.S. is the only country is the Americas that still conducts executions. It is a practice banned in most developed countries but still maintained in such human-rights-abusing nations as China and Iran.
But the Higgs case need not be a referendum on the death penalty, there are enough questions surrounding his treatment for even those Americans who continue to support executions to have doubts about whether it is appropriate here. Recently, Del. C.T. Wilson of Charles County, a former Prince George’s County assistant state’s attorney who has prosecuted his share of murderers, wrote Gov. Larry Hogan asking him to call on the Trump administration to stop the Higgs execution. The letter has been endorsed by no fewer than 38 delegates, including House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, and nine state senators.
Delegate Wilson notes that what Mr. Higgs was convicted of doing was truly despicable — the kidnapping and slayings of three young women, Tanji Jackson, 21; Tamika Black, 19; and Mishann Chinn, 23, in January of 1996. It was prosecuted as a federal crime because Mr. Higgs and co-defendant Willis Haynes murdered the women on a quiet stretch of Route 197 that just happened to be land owned by the federal Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Prince George’s County. Mr. Haynes, who actually pulled the trigger, was sentenced to life without parole. But that’s only the first of the problems with the matter.
As Delegate Wilson points out, prosecutors changed their theory of the case in the trials of Higgs and Haynes not to discern the truth of what happened but to achieve maximum punishment for those individuals. This factual inconsistency likely influenced what amounted to “unfair and disparate” results. It is one thing for the government to bend the narrative in an average criminal proceedings, but it should not be acceptable when the death penalty is involved. Justice demands more than to take turns painting one defendant and then the other as the principal culprit.
Add to the mix the lame-duck Trump administration rush to kill, and every Marylander, not just its governor, should have serious reservations about whether justice is being served in this case. That’s not to suggest Mr. Higgs is innocent or in any way to minimize the horrible crime. But what message does it send if the government’s standards for executions are going to be so low? That life is cheap? Or that the bar for state-sanctioned killing is set low?
We are skeptical that the delegate’s letter will make much difference. Or even that, if Governor Hogan were persuaded to take the case to the Trump administration, it would make much difference. But the point is to try, to advocate for justice even if that requires taking the unpopular position of seeking to spare the life of a convicted murderer. Only one Republican, Sen. Edward Reilly of Anne Arundel County, agreed to sign Delegate Wilson’s letter as of mid-day Friday, the rest are Democrats. It would be truly shameful, however, if a politically expedited execution involving a flawed prosecution of a Marylander turned out not to be a concern of anyone else in Annapolis or beyond.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.