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Trump administration executes its last death row inmate

Jan. 16 (UPI) -- The U.S. government put to death Dustin Higgs early Saturday, concluding the Trump administration's effort to revive federal executions.

Prison officials at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., declared Higgs, 55, dead at 1:23 a.m. He maintained his innocence in his final statement.

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"I'd like to say I am an innocent man," he said. "I did not order the murders."

Shawn Nolan, Higgs' attorney, criticized the federal government for carrying out the execution even though his client was recovering from COVID-19.

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"The government completed its unprecedented slaughter of 13 human beings tonight by killing Dustin Higgs, a Black man who never killed anyone, on Martin Luther King's birthday," Nolan said.

"There was no reason to kill him, particularly during the pandemic and when he, himself, was sick with COVID that he contracted because of these irresponsible, super-spreader executions. Rest in peace Dustin. Shame on all of those involved and all of those who have looked the other way."

Higgs was sentenced to death for the 1996 murders of three women in Maryland -- Tanji Jackson, Tamika Black and Mishann Chinn.

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Prosecutors said Higgs had invited the three women over to his Maryland apartment with accomplice Willis Haynes and a third man. Prosecutors said that after Jackson rebuffed an advance by Higgs, he offered to drive the three women back to Washington, D.C.

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Instead, prosecutors said he drove the women to a secluded area in Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge in St. George's County, Md., and told Haynes to shoot them. All three women died of gunshot wounds.

Haynes, who defense attorneys said pulled the trigger, was sentenced to life in prison.

Higgs' execution came after the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a lower court's stay of execution. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued the stay Wednesday after his attorneys argued that the U.S. government violated the Federal Death Penalty Act when it issued notice of his execution.

The FDPA requires that death sentences be implemented according to the state where the inmate was convicted -- in this case, Maryland, which has abolished the death penalty since Higgs' sentencing.

The Justice Department appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, saying the FDPA requirement is faulty because the federal government wouldn't be able to carry out death sentences for inmates where the death penalty is later abolished.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was among the three jurists who voted against vacating the stay. She criticized the court for "consistently" rejecting inmates "credible claims for relief."

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"This is not justice. After waiting almost two decades to resume federal executions, the government should have proceeded with some measure of restraint to ensure it did so lawfully," she wrote.

"When it did not, this court should have. It has not."

Former Attorney General William Barr announced the resumption of federal executions in 2019 after a 17-year hiatus of the practice. His efforts faced a number of court challenges, particularly over his plan to implement a single-drug cocktail for the lethal injection -- pentobarbital.

The FDPA requires that the federal government carry out executions according to the state where a crime happened. Critics argued this meant the Bureau of Prisons should have used the exact same drug cocktail used by the states -- usually a combination of two or three drugs.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the U.S. government in 2020, and the first federal execution in 17 years took place in July -- that of Daniel Lewis Lee.

Higgs' execution was the 13th carried out by the Trump administration and the third to take place in 2021.

There are no federal executions scheduled to take place under the incoming Biden administration. President-elect Joe Biden said he supports abolishing the death penalty, so it's unlikely his Justice Department would move to carry out any death sentences.



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