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Maryland Speaker Jones urges Gov. Hogan to intervene in January federal execution case

Amid the Trump administration’s push for more executions during its waning days, Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, signed a letter calling on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to push for a to halt the January execution of Dustin Higgs.

Higgs, the first person in Maryland to be sentenced to death in federal court, was convicted in 2000 of ordering the 1996 killings of three women: Tanji Jackson, 21; Tamika Black, 19; and Mishann Chinn, 23.

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The letter, signed by Jones, who also served on the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, and Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat, argues that Higgs was subject to an unfair process in that prosecutors didn’t disclose “at the appropriate time” two potential witnesses who implicated the convicted shooter, Willis Haynes, as the “sole perpetrator.”

Higgs was prosecuted on the theory that he ordered Haynes to kill the victims. That theory was supported exclusively by the contested testimony of Victor Gloria, a cooperating co-defendant who received a sentencing deal in exchange for his cooperation.

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“The net result in this case is an unfair and disparate result,” the letter said. “Unless we act together, this unfair process will result in the life of a Marylander being taken next month.”

About three weeks Republican President Donald Trump lost to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, Attorney General William Barr scheduled Higgs’ execution for Jan. 15 — Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

After 17 years of no federal executions, Trump has carried out 10 executions this year, more than any president in a year since the 1800s, a report from the Death Penalty Information Center found. The federal government executed more people than the states for the first time ever, according to the report. Some states paused their executions this year due to the pandemic.

Hogan has no actual power over the scheduled execution — just his power of persuasion. In 2016, he said he had a close relationship with Vice President Mike Pence.

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Hogan’s spokesman, Mike Ricci, said Thursday afternoon that he wasn’t familiar with the letter, which was dated for Friday. Wilson said he’s sending the letter Friday. Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert Hur declined to comment.

Alexandra Hughes, chief of staff for Jones, said that she questioned whether the execution was a politically motivated acceleration.

The death penalty has been a personal issue for Jones, as the death penalty has been given out disproportionately based on race, Hughes said. Black people have been disproportionately been put on death row. Higgs is Black.

“What we’re asking is for Governor Hogan to intervene on behalf of this Maryland man and try to see if he can help get this sentence converted to a life without parole as opposed to executing this man on Martin Luther King’s birthday,” Hughes said.

As for the case itself, Haynes, not Higgs, was convicted of shooting the women in January 1996 on federal land in Prince George’s County. Haynes got life in prison but was spared the death penalty.

According to trial testimony, the women got a ride with Higgs after a party and Higgs was angry that one of the women denied his advances. According to testimony, he gave his gun to a friend in the vehicle and told him to “make sure they’re all dead.”

Wilson found out about the case in a text from his daughter, who suggested he do something about it. He looked into the case and worked with lawyers to draft the letter to Hogan.

“The fact that he wasn’t the shooter and the shooter, the guy who murdered these three women has got life in prison, and this young man is getting this death penalty, is an abomination. It’s something we need to try to fix,” Wilson said. “I don’t want this man going to meet his maker thinking that people did not try to help them.”

Higgs’ legal team agrees.

“Dustin Higgs did not kill anyone and should not be executed. … It would be arbitrary and inequitable to punish Mr. Higgs more severely than the person who committed the murders,” Shawn Nolan, an attorney for Higgs, said in a statement . “Although compelling evidence was available at time of the trial and would have supported a plea for life, the jury that sentenced Mr. Higgs to death did not hear all of the mitigating information showing he is not ‘the worst of the worst,’ because his attorneys failed to develop and present it fully.”

Higgs also recently tested positive for COVID-19, Nolan said Thursday. In light of the positive test, Higgs’ legal team has asked for the execution date to be withdrawn and will “ask the courts to intervene if they do not,” Nolan said.

Nolan also said he deserved clemency because of hardship in his early years, being a “model prisoner” and “active parent.”

His legal team said Higgs’ father was a drug dealer who was “largely absent from his life” and “abusive” with Higgs and that his mother died of cancer when Higgs was 10.

“[Her] sickness and death were devastating to Mr. Higgs, who began to struggle both emotionally and academically,” his legal team wrote in a statement. “He was held back in second grade, scored in the low average range on IQ tests, and was diagnosed as learning disabled.”

This background wasn’t presented to jurors well enough, according to his legal team.

“In the twenty years he has been incarcerated, Mr. Higgs has adjusted exceptionally well to life in prison and has long been a model inmate,” Nolan said. “His demonstrated record of positive adjustment makes him particularly well-suited to peacefully live out the remainder of his life in custody.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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