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Dustin Higgs, Trump's last execution: A look inside his early life and final moments

Saba Ali
Poughkeepsie Journal

Dustin Higgs had two wishes before he was executed.

The first was that he wanted to be buried at Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery.

It's where his mother was laid to rest. It’s also a 10-minute drive from where he grew up on Winnikee Avenue in the heart of the City of Poughkeepsie. 

His second wish was for his cousin, Alexa Cave Wingate, to be OK after his death, something she cannot do without a burial. 

Higgs became the 13th and final person to be executed under now-former President Donald Trump early on Jan. 16. Advocates hope he is the last person to be executed by the United States, with President Joe Biden a supporter of legislation to eliminate federal capital punishment.

This 2015 photo provided by Shawn Nolan, chief capital habeas unit Community Federal Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, shows Dustin Higgs at the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

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The execution came 24 years after the 1996 Maryland triple murder for which he was convicted. It also came following an extended effort to reduce his sentence that began when Trump and then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr this past summer announced that, after 17 years without one, federal executions would resume.

Though his supporters did not deny Higgs’ involvement with the killings, they argued his punishment was more severe than the man who pulled the trigger, and disputed the assertion he ordered it to happen. The gunman, who is serving a life sentence, likewise disputed that assertion in a court filing.

Higgs received a lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court voted, 6-3, to vacate a stay of execution that likely would have extended argument over his sentence past inauguration day.

Wingate and Higgs were raised as brother and sister in Poughkeepsie, a childhood for which her description differs from that of a legal petition claiming a difficult upbringing contributed to Higgs’ actions as an adult.

Hers was the first face Higgs saw when he came home. It would be the last face he saw when he died. 

"I've always heard that the last thing to go is hearing,” she said of watching her cousin’s execution. “So, I didn't want to cry as long as he could hear me. I wanted him to know that I was OK.”

Wingate, a 51-year-old Georgia resident, has been working to fulfill her cousin's last wishes by getting his body transported to New York so that he can be buried in Poughkeepsie. She is waiting for the Indiana prison to release his body. 

Plans for the burial are still to be finalized.

The entrance to the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery on January 22, 2021.

A Poughkeepsie childhood

Wingate came to live with Marilyn Bennett, Higgs' mother, when she was about 3 years old because her parents were going through issues. She remembers the day Bennett brought Higgs home from the hospital, how she leaned over her baby cousin and waited for his eyes to open. 

Wingate remembers how, during the school week, Bennett would walk with them to Warring Elementary School and kiss them goodbye, before going to work at Mickey's Meat Market. 

"Living in Poughkeepsie back then was fun," she said. "We could go outside without a parent sitting on the porch. Nothing happened to us. We could go around the corner to Pershing Avenue Park in the summer."

Though younger by 2½ years, Higgs promised to protect Wingate after Bennett died from cancer. Still, she said, the death changed Higgs. He became very quiet.

Higgs went to live with his aunt in Staatsburg and attended Franklin D. Roosevelt High School. Wingate went back to live with her mom in Poughkeepsie. Both of them talked frequently and would see each other at church. 

Wingate enlisted in the Army after graduating high school and was posted in Maryland. Higgs came to Maryland to attend college. He lived with Wingate, who was pregnant, and looked after her daughter while she worked and attended school at night to become a funeral director.

"He took her everywhere. He took her outside. He took her to the store. He would read to her. He did everything with her," Wingate said. "He took over my baby."

She remembers her cousin as someone who said what he did, and did what he said. She described him as someone who didn't speak all that much, but when he did, "he was unapologetically direct," she said. 

However, their childhood wasn't without its issues and Wingate said she could not discuss the difficulties her cousin faced growing up.  

According to a petition for clemency filed in court, Higgs' lawyers said the Maryland federal court jury that sentenced him to death never learned Higgs had spent his early years in a poor, violence-plagued neighborhood; that he watched his rarely present biological father deal drugs and abuse his alcohol-dependent mother; or that extensive school records showed Higgs had significant intellectual and social impairment. 

Wingate disputed the notion that Bennett had a problem with alcohol.

What happened

According to prosecutors, as detailed in court records, Higgs, Willis Haynes and Victor Gloria drove the three women to an isolated area in Maryland on federal land after one of the women threatened to get her friends to go after Higgs.

Haynes fatally shot all three women, according to court documents. Prosecutors argued at Higgs’ trial Haynes acted under Higgs’ orders, and Gloria testified at trial Higgs told Haynes to make sure the women were dead. 

Haynes disputed that in a 2012 letter, saying he acted on impulse, and that Higgs only intended to drop off the women and drive away, leaving them alive. The letter was included in some of the appellate paperwork filed as defense lawyers attempted to get judges to reconsider Higgs’ death sentence. 

Haynes, now 43, was convicted at a separate trial of murder and kidnapping, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 45 years. 

In the petition seeking executive clemency, Higgs’ lawyers made several arguments they say warranted commutation of his sentence to life without parole: The fact that he was not the shooter; his history of trauma and learning disabilities, which the jury did not hear; that Gloria, the cooperating witness, was inconsistent in his description over time; that Higgs had adjusted well in prison and is no longer a threat, and had been a good father to his son, born just after his arrest. 

A friend at the end 

The room in which Higgs was executed at the federal prison was set up like an operating room in a hospital. 

Yusuf Nur remembers this clearly. It would be his second time administering the last rites of death as a spiritual advisor to an inmate on death row. Two months before, he had done the same for another Indiana inmate, Orlando Hall. 

"It's like they want to make you forget they are killing someone," he said.

Nur is a board member at the Islamic Center of Bloomington in Indiana. He is a professor of business management and has studied the Quran. 

When the center's management group received the email asking a spiritual advisor for Higgs, Nur waited for someone else to respond back. Having seen one person executed only recently, he was hoping to not witness such an act again.

A week passed, no one else volunteered. 

"I was reluctant because it really, really takes a lot out of you to watch a fellow human being put to death. It really becomes imprinted in your heart, and it takes awhile to get over it," Nur said, describing the act as a "modern day lynching.

"This is not a healing process. This is a killing process," he said of those who justify the death penalty as a means of closure. 

In the months before the execution, Nur spent time with Higgs, who he described as someone who didn't talk a lot, discussing religion. He also went over with Higgs what would happen in those last minutes. 

For Nur, spending time with Higgs was spending time with someone who was no longer distracted by life. 

"One of the first things that I told him was that I am here to learn from you," he said, hoping that there is a lesson in Higgs' death for the country, as well. 

'Look at me'

On the night of his execution, Higgs was strapped to a gurney and covered with a sheet, with one arm bare. Nur stood at a designated spot a couple of feet from him. When told to do so, he asked Higgs to say the testimony of faith. Nur then recited the 83 verses of Surah Yaseen, a chapter in the Quran.

The blinds were rolled up on the windows that separated the chamber from the rooms that housed the family of the victims, Higgs' cousin and lawyer, and the media. 

Wingate was the only family member present. She pulled down her mask and smiled at him.   

"Look at me," Wingate kept on repeating, hoping Higgs could hear. Nur, however, said that was not the case, as the audio only worked one way.

She watched it happen. But still, there are moments when it does not yet feel final.

When the phone rings and she picks up, "I keep waiting for the operator," she said.

"It would go, 'To accept this call, dial 5 now,'" she said, "'This call is from Dustin Higgs, an inmate at the federal prison.'"

Saba Ali: Sali1@poughkeepsiejournal.com: 845-451-4518