14:12, December 21 111 0 theguardian.com

2020-12-21 14:12:04
US death row prisoner Dustin Higgs petitions Trump for clemency

In a last-ditch effort to stay alive, Dustin Higgs, a federal death row prisoner set to be put to death next month as part of the Trump administration’s flurry of executions in its final days in office, has petitioned the president for clemency.

In his petition, Higgs points out that it is beyond dispute that he did not kill anyone himself. The actual killer in the murders of three women on 27 January 1996, Willis Haynes, was tried separately and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Higgs, who even the state accepts did not pull the trigger, was sentenced to death on the disputed theory that he ordered Haynes to carry out the shootings. His lawyers argue that the main evidence against him at trial came from a dubious witness who was a cooperating co-defendant and who received a “substantial deal” in order to implicate Higgs.

“A federal death verdict should not rest on such a flimsy basis,” the lawyers write in the clemency filing, labelling as “arbitrary and inequitable” the decision that Higgs should receive a death sentence while the man who pulled the trigger got life.

Higgs is scheduled to die by lethal injection at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, on 15 January. Should all executions set for the final days of Donald Trump’s time in office go ahead, three prisoners will die over just four days.

Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, is scheduled to be killed on 12 January. Corey Johnson is set to follow her into the death chamber two days later.

The scramble to execute federal inmates follows Trump’s decision to restart federal executions for the first time since 2003. The US government has put to death 10 prisoners this year, more than all the states combined, a first in US history.

The rush to kill has provoked a call from 40 Democrats in Congress for Joe Biden to abolish the federal death penalty when he takes office on 20 January – five days after Higgs is scheduled to die.

It was announced last week that both Higgs and Johnson have the coronavirus. The inmates are pleading in separate legal proceedings for a delay in their executions on grounds that they are struggling with the illness and are unable to make final efforts to spare themselves.

“Not only will Mr Higgs’s remaining time be marred by illness, but he will be severely restricted from visiting with his attorneys and family members without risk of making them seriously ill,” the condemned man’s clemency petition says.

Higgs was convicted in the murders of three women, Tanji Jackson, Tamika Black and Mishann Chinn. He was found guilty of first-degree premeditated murder and kidnapping. By the state’s own case, Haynes was the one who used the murder weapon to shoot the three women in a wildlife refuge where they were taken in a van.