Dustin John Higgs, the Laurel man who ordered the murders of three young District women in Beltsville five years ago, became the first person sentenced to death in federal court in Maryland yesterday when U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte ordered that he be executed by injection.
Higgs, 28, wearing a white long-sleeve dress shirt and off-white slacks, sat in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt with his chin cupped in his hand and did not react as Messitte pronounced the sentence. He had declined the judge's invitation to speak before sentence was passed.
Before a courtroom packed with relatives of the victims and other observers, Messitte noted that there has been much public discussion recently as to whether the death penalty is appropriate if there are doubts as to the convict's culpability.
Addressing Higgs, Messitte said, "Here, there's absolutely no doubt you committed these terrible crimes. That's the way you and people associated with you will be remembered. [The victims] will always be remembered as vibrant young women whose lives were cut short. You will always be remembered as a coldblooded murderer."
Higgs's attorney, Harry J. Trainor, said the verdict and sentence will be appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Appeals are likely to take years, perhaps decades, attorneys said.
No federal prisoner has been executed since 1963, and Higgs will become the 21st person on death row at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
Higgs was convicted by a federal jury in October of ordering the Jan. 27, 1996, murders of Tamika Black, 19; Tanji Jackson, 21; and Mishann Chinn, 23. The women were shot to death on a desolate stretch of Route 197 in Beltsville, on federal land near the Patuxent Wildlife Center.
Higgs was also convicted of three counts of kidnapping and weapons violations.
Joyce Gaston, the mother of Black, said Higgs's sentence brought little solace.
"It's not going to ever be right in my mind. Healing? I'm going around it," Gaston said. "That was my daughter. I don't know how I'm going to deal with it."
Deborah Blue, an aunt of Jackson, said, "It helps a little. We really miss Tanji."
Black was a teacher's aide at a private school in the District; Jackson worked at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt; Chinn worked with a children's choir at a Temple Hills church.
Maryland U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, who attended yesterday's sentencing, said, "The death penalty is appropriate in this case."
During Higgs's trial, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Deborah Johnston and Sandra Wilkinson argued that Higgs ordered Willis Mark Haynes, now 22, to shoot the women after a petty argument.
At a social gathering at Higgs's apartment, Jackson had rebuffed an advance by Higgs, and the two had exchanged angry words, according to trial testimony.
Higgs, Haynes and a third man who was at the gathering, Victor Gloria, drank heavily and smoked a cigar laced with marijuana, Gloria testified. After Jackson turned Higgs away, she led the other women out of the apartment and wrote down the tag number of Higgs's Mazda MPV and his address, Gloria testified.
When Higgs saw this, he became enraged, got his .38-caliber handgun and led the men out to pursue the women, saying Jackson knew people who could hurt him, Gloria testified.
Higgs picked up the women and told them he would give them a ride into the District, but instead he stopped on Route 197, ordered them out, gave Haynes the gun and told him to shoot them, Gloria testified. Haynes complied, Gloria testified.
At Haynes's trial in federal court last spring, Haynes's attorneys did not dispute his guilt, instead focusing their efforts on shielding him from the death penalty. The jury in that case convicted Haynes of the murders but spared his life.
Messitte sentenced Haynes to life plus 45 years in prison for the three murders and kidnapping and weapons violations.
Gloria, who pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact and agreed to testify for the government against Haynes and Higgs, was sentenced in November to seven years in prison plus three years of supervised probation.