On the night Lisa Montgomery was executed by the Trump administration, Alexa Cave Wingate arrived at the Springhill Suites in Terre Haute, Indiana, at 9 p.m. The hotel sits at the intersection of U.S. Highway 41 and Interstate 70. The interstate leads all the way to Baltimore, where Wingate’s brother, Dustin Higgs, had been sentenced to die more than 20 years earlier.
Some 3 miles in the opposite direction, in a brick building on the banks of the Wabash River, is the federal death chamber. Montgomery, the only woman under a federal death sentence, was being held in a small room adjacent to it. The execution chamber was constructed just after the passage of the 1994 crime bill, but the surrounding penitentiary predates even the interstate. When the prison first opened more than 75 years ago, the meeting of Highway 41 and Old State Road 40 made Terre Haute the “Crossroads of America” — a convenient location to bring people in federal custody from all over the country.
Higgs arrived on federal death row in January 2001, just five months before the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. After the Trump administration restarted executions last summer following a 17-year pause, Higgs saw 10 of his neighbors taken to their deaths. On November 20, the day after his friend Orlando Hall died by lethal injection, Higgs got an execution date himself. On Friday, after the scheduled execution of Corey Johnson on January 14, Higgs is set to be the last person to die in Trump’s killing spree. Wingate plans to be a witness.
“Dustin is actually technically my first cousin,” Wingate explained when we first spoke in December. But they grew up largely in the same household in Poughkeepsie, New York, and refer to each other as brother and sister. “When Dustin first came home from the hospital, I was there,” Wingate said.
After giving birth to her own daughter in 1990, Wingate enlisted in the Army, the best of a limited set of options. “I had to find a way to take care of her, to get a skill, and my family didn’t have money for me to go to college.” Following a year stationed in South Korea, she moved to Washington, D.C. — and Higgs followed. By then, Wingate was raising two kids while going to night school at the University of the District of Columbia. “He helped me so much,” Wingate recalled.
For a time, their plans for the future were intertwined. Higgs wanted to open a barbershop and Wingate wanted to be a funeral director. “I said, ‘OK, well, you can come and we can start this family business. You can fix the hair. I’ll do the makeup and I’ll do the embalming and all that,’” Wingate said. “That was our original goal.” But eventually Higgs started to pull away from her.
Wingate had moved back to New York when she got a phone call in 1996 saying that Higgs had been arrested for dealing drugs. “I was like, ‘How did you keep that from me?’ He said because he knew I wouldn’t approve, so he never brought it around me at all.” But a worse nightmare unfolded in 1998, when Higgs was charged as a suspect in a horrific triple murder. The victims, Mishann Chinn, 23, Tanji Jackson, 21, and Tamika Black, 19, had been found fatally shot around 4 a.m. on January 27, 1996, on a road that cut through the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, a federal tract of land in Prince George’s County, between D.C. and Baltimore. All three worked in local schools and did not fit investigators’ profile of women whose lives might “invite violence,” according to a true crime podcast that recently explored the case.
“I remember him saying, ‘You know I didn’t.’ And I said, ‘You don’t even have to finish that sentence. I know you didn’t.’”
Investigators found a day planner in Jackson’s purse that contained Higgs’s address and license plate number. After Higgs initially denied any involvement to police, a pair of his associates, Victor Gloria and Willis Haynes, were arrested together on federal drug charges, prompting what an investigator would later describe as an “incredible confession” from Gloria. Agreeing to be a witness for the government in exchange for a lesser sentence, Gloria testified that the three men had been hanging out with Chinn, Jackson, and Black in Higgs’s apartment when Jackson rejected Higgs. The two argued and she took down his information. Higgs became angry, telling Gloria and Haynes that Jackson “knew some people” who could hurt him. After offering the women a ride back toward D.C., according to Gloria, Higgs instead drove the group in his van to the federal reserve, where he gave Haynes a handgun and said, “Make sure they’re all dead.”
Wingate was skeptical from the start. She had never known Higgs to be violent toward women. When Higgs called her after the charges were filed, “I remember him saying, ‘You know I didn’t.’ And I said, ‘You don’t even have to finish that sentence. I know you didn’t.’”
And there were reasons to doubt Gloria’s credibility. In his earliest statements to police, he said that he’d been passed out in the backseat of Higgs’s van and woke up to gunshots. But later, he said he saw 23-year-old Higgs give 18-year-old Haynes the gun and threaten him if he did not shoot the women. At Haynes’s trial in August 2000, which ended in a life sentence, the government argued that he had not been intimidated by Higgs into shooting the women. Shortly afterward, at Higgs’s trial, the same prosecutors cast Higgs as the dominant player who had coerced Haynes into doing his bidding. On October 11, 2000, jurors convicted Higgs.
Later that month, Wingate drove down to Baltimore with the aunt who had raised them both as kids. “His lawyers asked us to testify at his sentencing hearing, to make them know what we know about Dustin, that he’s not this monster that the prosecution said he is,” she recalled. There was plenty to say. Higgs’s mother had died of cancer when he was a child, and the whole family saw how, in the absence of his father, he strived to take care of her in her final days. But Wingate felt unprepared. It was the first time she had seen Higgs in person in four years. “I’m trying to answer the questions that they’re asking me,” she said, but “I’m just crying.”
Federal prosecutors urged jurors to sentence Higgs to death. “The hard truth is, ladies and gentlemen, it would be a better world in the future without Dustin Higgs,” one told the jury. The Washington Post described how Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandra Wilkinson “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.”
Wingate was not in the courtroom for the sentencing. Her aunt worked as a nurse and the two had driven back to New York in time for her shift. Wingate was home crocheting a blanket for Higgs when one of her cousins called. “She said, ‘Hey, Lex, you OK?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ … She said, ‘Oh. So you didn’t hear.’” Her cousin told her that Higgs had been sentenced to death. “I just screamed,” Wingate said. Her kids, then ages 8 and 10, came to ask what was wrong. She tried her best to explain.
For the past 20 years, Wingate has regularly spoken to Higgs on the phone. These days, he calls her every day. But she had never visited Higgs in Terre Haute. “I can’t afford it,” she said. With the help of one of Higgs’s friends on death row, Wingate raised enough money to visit her brother for the first time. She wants to be present for his execution. “When my brother came home from the hospital, I was the first face he saw when he opened his eyes when my aunt laid him on the couch,” she said. “So I want to be the last face he sees before he leaves.”
To the activists who have gathered in Terre Haute since last summer, the late-night execution of Lisa Montgomery was a blow, but not a surprise. Many had high hopes that Brandon Bernard would be saved in December, only to see his appeals dismissed by the courts and calls for clemency ignored by the president. After 11 executions waved through by the U.S. Supreme Court, few are optimistic that Johnson or Higgs will be spared.
Yet, like Montgomery, both men have legal claims that have never been fully adjudicated. Johnson has an intellectual disability that should make him ineligible for execution — and Higgs has convinced a federal court to schedule an oral argument on whether his execution would violate federal law based in part on the fact that he was convicted in Maryland, which abolished the death penalty in 2013. That argument is set for January 27 — 12 days after Higgs is supposed to die. But such things have not stood in the way of the federal executions.
Like more than half of the men on federal death row, both Johnson and Higgs contracted Covid-19 last month. Attorneys argued that lung damage from the illness would make them vulnerable to an especially tortuous death by lethal injection, which has been shown to cause pulmonary edema. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan agreed, delaying the executions on the grounds that killing the men now would violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Johnson’s family was ecstatic over the news, according to his spiritual adviser, who had to explain to them that this would not necessarily stop the execution. Wingate was hopeful too. But in a phone call after she landed in Indiana, her brother warned her not to assume the ruling would hold.
To Higgs, the issues raised in the current litigation pale in comparison to what he has insisted upon for years: that he is innocent of the crime that sent him to death row. On a website created by his advocates, Higgs argues that not only did Willis Haynes pull the trigger that killed Chinn, Jackson, and Black, but Higgs also never ordered such a thing to begin with.
His claims are backed up by an affidavit written by Haynes in 2012, which was included in a clemency application for Higgs during the Obama administration. “The prosecution’s theory of our case was bullshit,” Haynes wrote. “Dustin didn’t threaten me. I was not scared of him. Dustin didn’t make me do anything that night or ever.” Higgs also argues that his defense attorneys failed to investigate critical witnesses — and that federal prosecutors hid evidence from his attorneys at trial.
Especially consequential was evidence that the government’s star witness, Gloria, was a suspect in a separate murder case in Baltimore, but the FBI did not pursue him in order to gain his help in the case against Higgs. In a 2014 affidavit, Higgs’s trial attorney Henry Trainor wrote that the information about Gloria would have altered the case significantly. “I consider receiving a free pass on a murder charge to be an extraordinary benefit for a witness,” he said. Had defense attorneys been aware of this deal, he added, they certainly would have used it to challenge Gloria’s credibility.
It is not uncommon to see evidence like this revealed after a person has been sentenced to death. Yet such red flags are often not enough to stop an execution. Even if Higgs did not direct Haynes to shoot Chinn, Jackson, and Black, he still would have been eligible for the death penalty under a felony murder prosecution. In some ways, his case is emblematic of the death penalty as a punishment reserved not for the “worst of the worst,” but for those who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time — in this case, facing federal murder charges in the District of Maryland in the wake of the 1994 crime bill.
The killing of Chinn, Jackson, and Black came at a time when the Department of Justice had been preparing to ramp up executions. Less than a year before the murders, in July 1995, the Baltimore Sun reported that federal prosecutors were on the lookout for cases that might warrant the death penalty. “It could be a gang lord or a murderous carjacker or a drug smuggler,” the Sun reported. “But sometime in the coming months, U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia expects to take the unprecedented step of seeking the death penalty against someone for committing a federal crime in Maryland.”
The Sun cited a number of downsides. For one, each federal death penalty case was estimated to cost $340,000 “in public defender fees alone.” What’s more, contrary to popular assumption, police seemed skeptical of the need for executions to maintain law and order. “In a recent poll of the nation’s police chiefs, the death penalty ranked last among methods they felt were effective in reducing street crime.”
Finally, there was the age-old problem of racism. A 1994 congressional study found that 89 percent of the cases in which federal prosecutors chose to seek the death penalty under the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act involved Black or Latino defendants. Nevertheless, Battaglia told the Sun that the public was demanding death penalty prosecutions. “I hope we never have to consider it,” she said. “But there are circumstances where you have to take people out of society.”
Veteran private investigator Sharon Weidenfeld had been working on murder cases in Prince George’s County for years when she was hired to work on Higgs’s defense. Although her recollections are sketchy, she remembered conducting a key interview with Gloria’s ex-girlfriend, Katrina Havenner, in September 2000. Havenner told Weidenfeld that despite Gloria’s new statements to police, he told her that he’d been asleep when Haynes shot the three women. She repeated the statement in a 2006 affidavit, explaining that Gloria could never hold his liquor and would pass out after drinking. According to Havenner, Gloria also told her that Haynes had threatened to kill her and their daughter if he said anything. “Victor believed Willis and so did I,” she said.
Havenner’s claims were corroborated by Gloria himself in a 2004 interview conducted by an investigator working with Higgs’s legal team at the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Gloria complained that he’d been incarcerated “for nothing,” since he was asleep when the women were shot, the investigator wrote in an affidavit. “When I then asked Mr. Gloria whether that meant that his statements and testimony concerning the events that occurred at the crime scene were not true,” the investigator continued, “Mr. Gloria replied, ‘That was the police.’”
“People will give statements to the police and tell them one thing and then when I interview them, they’ll tell me something else. And a lot of the times, it turns out that what they’re telling me is really the truth.”
“It happens a lot, where people will give statements to the police and tell them one thing and then when I interview them, they’ll tell me something else,” Weidenfeld told me. “And a lot of the times, it turns out that what they’re telling me is really the truth.” Police, after all, rely upon myriad tactics to get suspects and witnesses to talk, including threats and promises that can provide a powerful incentive to lie.
When Weidenfeld saw the news that Higgs had been given an execution date, she immediately recognized his name. It sickened her that he had been scheduled to die on January 15 — Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. She finds President Donald Trump’s execution spree especially grotesque when contrasted with his clemency record. Among those he pardoned last month is a Prince George’s County police officer who was convicted of violating the civil rights of a Latino immigrant the same year Higgs arrived on death row. The officer, Stephanie Mohr, had a history of using her police dog to threaten and attack people of color. Weidenfeld had seen this racist brutality up close in her decades working in Prince George’s County. In fact, she was instrumental in exposing the abuse.
The lead prosecutor in Higgs’s case, Deborah Johnston, was an assistant state’s attorney in Prince George’s County before she became a federal prosecutor. In a tribute following her death in 2017, the Justice Department highlighted her role in convicting “the sole two death row defendants in the District of Maryland, ensuring that the interests of the United States were fully vindicated.” Weidenfeld had a slightly different description of Johnston. “I never knew her to show any mercy for any criminal defendant, no matter their circumstances,” she said.
Battaglia, the former U.S. attorney, did not respond to emails sent this week. Neither did Wilkinson, who prosecuted Higgs’s case alongside Johnston and still works for the Justice Department. In 2014, she was recognized by then-Attorney General Eric Holder for her “superior performance” securing a conviction in a murder-for-hire case that had previously sent the wrong man to prison. “This case resulted in the exoneration of an innocent man and the conviction of the real killer,” U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said at the time. More recently, Wilkinson was excoriated by a federal judge for presenting false evidence to gain a conviction in a fraud case that was dismissed due to prosecutorial misconduct. The “promotion of false significant testimony in this case does shock the conscience of this court,” the judge wrote.
Early Wednesday morning, Wingate went to see Higgs with her son JaCobi. They had to report to the penitentiary by 7:30 a.m. She had not slept much the night before. It was the first time she was going to see her brother since his sentencing trial, and she was anxious and excited.
In their phone calls, Wingate said, Higgs has told her what it is like on the day after an execution. “He’s like, ‘It’s quiet. It’s so quiet.’ Because usually people are watching TV … or they’re talking to each other through the cell.” But after an execution, “nobody’s talking.”
In his emails to me over the past month and a half, Higgs emphasized his innocence and decried the corrupt system that sent him to death row. He shared his dismay over the execution of Bernard, who was a close friend. On the day after Christmas, he offered condolences for the bombing in Nashville, where I live.
More recently, he has described what he wants his legacy to be. For the past 20 years, he has tried “to re-educate myself by reading hundred upon hundreds of books,” he said, and more recently he taught himself to paint. “I have also wrote a children book, and a book comprised of my reflective thoughts.” The goal, he said, is to make a difference, to honor his family, and to “bring them out of poverty.”
He also worries about how his execution will impact Wingate if it goes through. She has been his protector since he was little, he said. “When the boys my age would beat me up, my sister would leap into action and protect her little brother,” he said. “That is one of many reasons that our bond is so strong today. I am 48 years old and my sister is still fighting on my behalf.”
The families of Chinn, Jackson, and Black did not respond to emails sent this week. It is not clear whether they plan to witness Higgs’s execution. “My heart goes out to them,” Wingate said. “I haven’t lost a child. I don’t know what that’s like. … I just want them to understand that it’s not my brother that did it.”
With the Justice Department appealing Chutkan’s ruling, Wingate is trying to focus on making the most of her time with Higgs. She will spend Thursday visiting her brother, possibly for the last time. She admitted to feeling some hope after he tested positive in December. It sounds terrible to say, “I’m glad you got Covid,” she said, “but that’s not what it is. … It’s just a feeling of maybe this can slow down your execution.” With the inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20, even a short delay would change everything.
“Just give me six days,” Wingate said. “Every night I go to bed and that’s all I pray for. … I don’t care if it’s a stay or a reprieve, whatever. Six days is all I pray for. Six days.”