Trump’s DOJ Is Determined to Kill Until the Very End
Where the administration’s virus response has been one of fatal passivity and incompetence, it’s been racing to try and execute everyone in its last days.
The Trump administration’s sole success was in removing any lingering doubt that the right-wing is a death cult.
This president’s nihilistic indifference to the coronavirus pandemic helped kill 385,000, his incitement of his white supremacist followers left five dead after the Capitol insurgency, and his administration’s anti-immigrant family separation policy killed children. In its final act of bloodthirsty callousness, as a petty parting boast of its power, the Trump administration is now assaulting the rule of law to race through the planned end of the execution spree it began last year.
Dustin Higgs is slated to be killed by Trump’s DOJ on Friday night, about 24 hours after the DOJ killed Corey Johnson, who was pronounced dead at 11:34 pm on Thursday. If that happens, Higgs would be executed five days before death-penalty opponent Joe Biden takes office, reflecting the utter depravity and mercilessness of the Trump administration, whose lawyers have reportedly been working nonstop in recent days to overturn stays issued by lower courts for Higgs, Johnson, and Lisa Montgomery, who was executed Tuesday, all so the president can prove his strongman potential on his way out the door.
Both Johnson and Higgs were diagnosed with COVID-19 in December, victims of an outbreak prompted by the DOJ’s execution spree at the Terre Haute, Indiana prison during a deadly pandemic. Each execution the government undertakes involves an “execution team” of 40 people, attorneys, clerics, media, and family members. Each execution is, essentially, a superspreader event that likely results in a chain of deaths beyond the prison walls in the weeks and months that follow. Of the 47 men in the unit that houses federal death row inmates, 33 have been diagnosed with COVID-19, as have more than 100 prisoners and five staff members throughout the facility. In a statement, Higgs’s attorney Shawn Nolan pointed out that the Trump administration’s disregard for human life is apparent in the inhumane treatment of his client.
“It is time for the government to stop carrying out super-spreader executions,” Nolan wrote. “Dustin Higgs contracted COVID-19 because of the government’s irresponsible actions in carrying out executions during the pandemic, and his lungs are still damaged as a result of the infection. Waiting until March will allow Dustin’s lungs to heal, reducing the risk that he will suffer excruciating pain during an execution. It would also eliminate the shameful spectacle of the government executing a young Black man who did not even kill anyone on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
On Tuesday, a D.C. federal court had issued stays for both Higgs and Johnson, noting both men had “suffered significant lung damage” from coronavirus that, with an injection of pentobarbital, could inflict cruel and unusual punishment before the onset of death, violating the Eighth Amendment. Johnson was convicted in 1993 for the murders of seven people, killings related to his involvement in a drug-trafficking Virginia gang. Before a federal jury sentenced him to death later that year, a psychological evaluation showed he had the writing skills of an elementary school student. He was 24 years old at the time. His childhood had been filled with instability and abuse, and he had difficulty both socially and academically in school. A teacher at the special needs academy Johnson attended at age 13 told The New York Times that he needed accompaniment to the bathroom “because he would frequently wander or become lost on his way back to class.” In high school, Johnson’s IQ tested somewhere between 69 and 74, according to his attorneys. The federal jury at his original trial was never informed of his intellectual disability—though his co-defendant, Vernon Thomas, received a life sentence because of his own cognitive limitations.
By Thursday afternoon, the DOJ had successfully overturned the stay, opening the door for Johnson’s execution. In his dissent from that ruling, Judge James A. Wynn wrote, “If Johnson’s death sentence is carried out today, the United States will execute an intellectually disabled person, which is unconstitutional.” The U.S. Supreme Court turned down Johnson’s request for a reprieve at 10 p.m. In a final written statement, Johnson apologized to his victims and their families, writing, “I am not the same man that I was.” Less than two hours later, he was dead.
“No court ever held a hearing to consider the overwhelming evidence of Mr. Johnson’s intellectual disability. And the clemency process failed to play its historic role as a safeguard against violations of due process and the rule of law,” Johnson’s lawyers, Donald P. Salzman and Ronald J. Tabak, wrote in a statement. “Corey simply lacked the capacity to operate as the 'drug kingpin' the government falsely portrayed him as for nearly 30 years. He could barely read or write, he struggled with basic tasks of daily living, and was—like many with intellectual disability—a follower, desperate for approval, support, and guidance. We loved Corey Johnson, and we knew him as a gentle soul who never broke a rule in prison and kept trying, despite his limitations, to pass the GED.”
The Trump administration restarted federal executions in July after a 17-year hiatus, using capital punishment to push the law-and-order image this president gives lip service to while running one of the most corrupt administrations in modern history. Then-Attorney General Bill Barr announced the addition of three more names to the DOJ’s kill list in November. Since the first execution of Daniel Lewis Lee on July 14, the Trump administration has put 11 people to death, more than any lame-duck presidency since the 19th-century administration of Grover Cleveland. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “Every prisoner executed in 2020 had one or more significant mental or emotional impairments (mental illness, intellectual disability, brain damage, or chronic trauma) or was under age 21 at the time of the crime for which he was executed.”
Lisa Montgomery, who was killed in the early hours of Wednesday morning, was the first inmate put to death by Trump’s DOJ in 2021, and the first woman killed by the federal government in 67 years. Montgomery’s life was marked by brutal physical, mental, and sexual abuse by her stepfather and mother, who once told an investigator her daughter’s first spoken sentence was, “Don’t spank me. It hurts.” A family history of mental illness and the staggering trauma of her childhood resulted in diagnoses of multiple psychosocial disabilities, and in the days prior to her execution, Montgomery’s lawyers noted that her “deteriorating mental condition results in her inability rationally to understand she will be executed, why she will be executed, or even where she is.” The DOJ’s lawyers, nonetheless, spared no mercy in litigating the case all the way to SCOTUS, where the court’s conservative jurists—including newly appointed Amy Coney Barrett—scrapped four stays of execution.
The Trump administration’s death drive has continued in its ceaseless push to execute Dustin Higgs. On January 11, the DOJ filed a highly unorthodox and outrageous request with SCOTUS demanding the high court force a lower federal tribunal to expedite its ruling on another matter in the Higgs case. The 4th Circuit Court had decided earlier this month to take up the matter on January 27, one week after Biden’s inauguration. In its homicidal effort to maintain its killing spree right up until its departure, the DOJ filed an emergency motion asking SCOTUS to bully the lower court into rendering its decision so that it may get on with the business of killing Higgs while it still can.
Higgs, who the Trump DOJ plans to execute as its last lethal act on the way out, has killed no one. This point is not in contention, not even by the government. Federal officials instead claim that Higgs forced Willis Haynes, his co-defendant, to fatally shoot three young women, Tanji Jackson, Tamika Black, and Mishann Chinn, in 1996. But Haynes, the self-admitted shooter, wrote in a 2012 affidavit that “the prosecution’s theory of our case was bullshit. Dustin didn’t threaten me. I was not scared of him. Dustin didn’t make me do anything that night or ever.” Victor Gloria, a cooperating co-defendant, changed his story to help the government make its case against Higgs, according to an investigator in the case, and was handed a significantly reduced sentence in a separate case for his testimony. Clinical and forensic psychologist Lawrence Donner said he saw no signs of violence in Higgs, whom he instead described as a “frightened, scared person.” Higgs, who has a teen son with whom he is quite close, was diagnosed with learning disabilities as a kid.
Haynes was sentenced to life in prison for pulling the trigger in the killings. Higgs, who shot no one, is slated to die.
In addition to the arbitrary application of capital punishment, it’s absurd and offensive that Donald Trump is positioned as the moral arbiter of anything. This president is an open racist who in 1989 bought a full-page ad demanding five Black and Latino teenagers be put to death for a heinous crime they did not commit. He has continued to insist on their guilt years after their exonerations. Higgs’ clemency application requesting that Trump reduce his sentence to life in jail has garnered no response from the president, who’s issued pardons to his criminal cronies including Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, as well as Stephanie Mohr, a former Maryland police officer convicted of “violating the civil rights” of an unhoused Mexican immigrant who was complying with her orders by siccing her police dog on him. Mohr spent 10 years in jail for that offense which, given the rarity with which cops serve time for even the most violent criminal acts, means the attack must have been particularly horrific. At her 2001 trial, it emerged that she had also used her police dog to attack a Black teenager sleeping in a hammock in his backyard, and in another case, threatened to release the dog to bite a woman’s "Black ass.” During last summer’s uprisings against racism, Trump none-too-subtly threatened protesters with the “most vicious dogs,” so he may well have found a kindred racist spirit in Mohr.
The president is also a pathological liar who is accused of sexual assault by dozens of women, and his corrupt DOJ attempted to do his dirty work in a case that includes accusations of rape by him. He applauds lawlessness in his white supremacist base, cheering on right-wing murderers like Kyle Rittenhouse. After his terrorist supporters mobbed the Capitol—beating a cop to death and carrying the tools of would-be kidnappers—he thanked them. Trump’s decision to resume the federal death penalty, like everything he has ever done in office, was just another way to ensure his confederacy of supporters that he would inflict violence on those they seek to punish—Black folks, the poor, the vulnerable. The notion that Trump or his abettors should appear in a courtroom as anything other than defendants is absurd.
Capital punishment is always racist, immoral, and backward. But in particular, this president—whose DOJ has repeatedly violated the Constitution in its fervor to kill human beings—should not be allowed to decide life and death for anyone, and most certainly not as he is impeached for his ongoing sedition and treason, and the political situation continues to be ruled by chaos. Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, Dustin Lee Honken, Lezmond Mitchell, Keith Dwayne Nelson, William LeCroy, Christopher Vialva, Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois, Lisa Montgomery, and Corey Johnson deserved better. There remains only the faintest hope that Dustin Higgs actually gets it.