A Laurel man who ordered the murders of three young women in Beltsville was sentenced to death yesterday, the first time a Maryland federal jury has imposed the death penalty since the sanction was enacted 12 years ago.
Dustin John Higgs, 28, sat with his chin in his hand and did not openly react as the foreman read the verdict in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. Denise Thompson, whose daughter was one of the women shot to death on a desolate, rain-slicked stretch of Route 197 nearly five years ago, leaned forward in her seat and wept softly.
An all-male jury deliberated for about seven hours over two days before deciding unanimously that Higgs should be executed. The case is believed to be the third death penalty prosecution in Maryland since the federal sanction, aimed at drug kingpins, was enacted in 1988 and expanded in 1994 to include 40 other crimes, including murder.
After a two-week trial, Higgs was convicted this month of ordering the Jan. 27, 1996, slayings of Tamika Black, 19, Tanji Jackson, 21, and Mishann Chinn, 23.
Just before 4 a.m. on that date, the women were fatally shot on federal land near the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Higgs ordered the women killed after arguing with one of them during a social gathering at his apartment, according to court testimony.
The triggerman who shot the women at the direction of Higgs, Willis Mark Haynes, 22, was convicted in May of three counts of first-degree murder, kidnapping and firearms violations. That jury spared Haynes's life, and U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte sentenced Haynes to life plus 45 years in prison.
After the verdict was read yesterday, the relatives of the victims hugged the prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Deborah Johnston and Sandra Wilkinson, and thanked them for their efforts.
"I feel that justice has been served. I want to thank the 12 courageous members of the jury," said Krishana Chinn, Mishann's mother. "There's no joy, but we are relieved that justice has been served," Chinn said, adding that she did not believe Higgs showed any remorse during his trial.
Harry J. Trainor, one of Higgs's defense attorneys, said, "For us, it is a very sad ending to a very sad case."
Trainor said the first in what could be a lengthy series of appeals on Higgs's behalf will be filed with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals within 10 days of Dec. 15, when Messitte is scheduled to sentence Higgs.
Trainor and his co-counsel, Timothy Sullivan, told jurors during their closing arguments on Wednesday that sentencing Higgs to life in prison would be a harsh and appropriate punishment.
"It's punishment every day, in every way," Trainor said. Sullivan argued against what he characterized as the calculated nature of the death penalty and said putting Higgs to death would not ease the burden carried by the relatives of his victims.
In her closing statement, Wilkinson said the opposite; she displayed a large rock and likened it to the emotional weight borne by relatives of the victims, a burden she said would be lightened if Higgs were to be put to death.
Johnston argued that even though Higgs did not shoot the women himself, he was the driving force behind the murders because he told Haynes to shoot the women and gave him the gun he used to kill them.
"Remove him from the equation, and those girls are still alive," Johnston said.
The murders received wide media coverage, because of the number of victims and because the women did not appear to lead lives that invited violence.
Black was a teacher's aide at a private school in the District; Jackson was an employee at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt; Chinn worked with a children's choir at a Temple Hills church.
Haynes admitted to his role in the murders in a statement to investigators from the FBI and the U.S. Park Police. Though Higgs did not confess, prosecutors used much of the same evidence against him that they used against Haynes.
The key government witness, Victor Gloria, testified that the slayings were set in motion during a late-night gathering at Higgs's Laurel apartment. Haynes, Higgs, Gloria and the three women were there, Gloria testified.
The men drank heavily and smoked a cigar laced with marijuana, Gloria testified. Prosecutors said the women drank little or nothing and did not smoke.
When Jackson rebuffed an advance from Higgs, the two argued, and Jackson then led the women out of the apartment, Gloria testified. Higgs followed and began a chain of events that ended with the slayings.
Gloria has pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to the slayings and is awaiting sentencing.
Higgs is already serving a federal sentence of 17 years and eight months after pleading guilty in May 1997 to possession with intent to distribute cocaine base.
Higgs will join 19 other federal convicts sentenced to death since in 1988. As yet, no one has been executed under that law.
In Maryland, the federal death penalty calls for lethal injection.