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Injustice Collides with Reverence

Author, Michelle Smith, Racial Justice Coordinator at Missourians for Alternative to the Death Penalty

The scheduled execution of Dustin Higgs on the birthdate of Dr. Martin Luther King, January 15th, is a horrible mark on his legacy and wounds the conscience of empathetic people. In Dustin’s situation, this quote by Equal Justice Initiative is decidedly pertinent; “The question we need to ask about the death penalty in America is not whether someone deserves to die for a crime. The question is whether we deserve to kill.” I emphasize this because Dustin Higgs did not kill anyone. This is not supposition on my part, and this is not simply a claim of his supporters.

This truth is found throughout the trials of Higgs and his co-defendant, Willis Haynes. Prosecutors were ardent in their pursuit to ‘win’ a death penalty verdict against one or both of these men. Mr. Haynes’ trial preceded Dustin’s trial, and the prosecution argued Haynes was the “ringleader” and very violent. It was well established that Mr. Haynes did, in fact, shoot Tamika Black, Tanji Jackson, and Mishann Chinn in 1996. This first trial concluded in a guilty verdict and sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. But this was not sufficient for the prosecution, again desiring a death sentence. In the following trial of Dustin Higgs, they changed their theory of events and began to argue that Dustin was the ringleader and controlled the actions of Willis Haynes. They argued that Dustin handed Willis the gun and *made* him shoot the victims. Mr. Haynes has stated in a signed affidavit that Dustin did not threaten him, he has never feared Dustin, and Dustin did not make him do anything that night or any other night. The only modicum of proof offered by the prosecution was the contested testimony of a cooperating co-defendant. This newfound theory led to Dustin’s guilty verdict and death sentence on October 11, 2000.

According to Mr. Higgs’ attorney, Shawn Nolan, “It would be arbitrary and inequitable to punish Mr. Higgs more severely than the person who committed the murders.” Despite the facts of Dustin’s case, federal authorities have set a date of execution on MLK’s birth date, which flies in the face of any notion of ‘justice’ and puts salt into the lacerations of the gaping wound that is “the justice system” in this nation. “…Violence never brings permanent peace” is among the multitude of phrases spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King over his years of nonviolently fighting for the recognition and value of all humanity.

Since last July, the Trump administration has executed ten people. Dustin will be number thirteen, along with Lisa Montgomery and Corey Johnson, all executed the week before the end of the Trump administration. According to the results of an investigation by ProPublica, this federal “killing spree” is the culmination of a campaign strategy by Donald Trump to live up to his “law and order” rhetoric. Beyond that, the DOJ under William Barr has trampled over procedural barriers to accomplish this ‘killing spree.’ To be sure, the chances of scheduling Dustin Higgs’s execution on the birthdate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., being happenstance, is extremely unlikely. Dr. King fought for years in the pursuit of justice, equality, and peace; so, I truly hope that the impending execution of Dustin Higgs, a man who did not kill anyone, on that reverent of days, disturbs the spirits of principled people.

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