Man convicted in 3 killings to be last executed under Trump

This 2015 photo provided by Shawn Nolan Chief, Capital Habeas Unit Community Federal Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, shows Dustin Higgs at the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Ind. Higgs, the last federal inmate facing execution before President Donald Trump leaves office was sentenced to death for the killings of three women in a Maryland wildlife refuge in 1996. Higgs is scheduled to be executed on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, at the federal prison in Terre Haute. ((Federal Bureau of Prisons/Community Federal Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania via AP))

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The last federal inmate facing execution before President Donald Trump leaves office was sentenced to death for the killings of three women in a Maryland wildlife refuge, a crime that led to a life sentence for the man who fired the fatal shots.

Dustin Higgs, 48, who is scheduled to be executed on Friday at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, says nobody alleges he pulled the trigger. His lawyers have argued it is “arbitrary and inequitable” to execute Higgs while Willis Haynes, the man who fatally shot the women in 1996, was spared a death sentence.

The federal judge who presided over Higgs' trial two decades ago says he “merits little compassion.”

“He received a fair trial and was convicted and sentenced to death by a unanimous jury for a despicable crime,” U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte wrote in a Dec. 29 ruling.

Defense attorneys won temporary stays of execution this week for Higgs and another inmate, Corey Johnson, after arguing that their recent COVID-19 infections put them at greater risk of unnecessary suffering during the lethal injections. But higher courts overruled those decisions, allowing the executions to go forward, and Johnson was executed Thursday night.

Shawn Nolan, one of Higgs’ attorneys, sees a clear political agenda in the unprecedented string of federal executions at the end of Trump’s presidency. Higgs is scheduled to be executed five days before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. A spokesman for Biden has said the Democrat is against the death penalty and will work to end its use.

“In the midst of the pandemic and everything that’s going on right now in the country, it seems just insane to move forward with these executions," Nolan said recently. “And particularly for Dustin, who didn’t shoot anybody. He didn’t kill anybody.”

Higgs' Dec. 19 petition for clemency says he has been a model prisoner and dedicated father to a son born shortly after his arrest. Higgs had a traumatic childhood and lost his mother to cancer when he was 10, the petition says.