‘They were incredibly wholesome young women’; reporter recalls murders, trial that landed Dustin Higgs on death row

Federal Executions

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — The lives of of Tamika Black, Tanji Jackson, and Mishann Chinn ended violently on a January night in 1996, as the three young women were shot and killed along a secluded stretch of highway in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Nearly 25 years later, on a January night, Dustin Higgs is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection as ordered by the Department of Justice under the Trump administration.

So, what happened between these two significant January nights?

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“He did not outwardly reach to much, if anything, that happened in court.”

This is how Ruben Castaneda, a former Washington Post crime reporter, remembered Dustin Higgs’s demeanor throughout his trial, even at the end, when he was sentenced to death.

“Even when the death penalty was announced, Higgs didn’t have any emotional outbursts or any outward signs of distress at the time,” Castaneda recalled.

Higgs was found guilty on several federal charges, including three counts of capital murder, on October 11, 2000. He was convicted by a jury in the U.S. District Court in the District of Maryland, according to the DOJ’s website.

Castaneda was covering the trial at the time for the Washington Post, and said evidence shared in court pointed toward Higgs as the person who ordered the murders of Black, Jackson, and Chinn. The three women were picked up by Higgs on the night of the murders and driven to his apartment in Laurel, Maryland.

After one of the women rebuffed Higgs’s advances while at his apartment, Castaneda said there was an argument and the women left.

According to the DOJ, Higgs ended up offering to drive the women back to Washington D.C., but instead kidnapped them and drove them out to the federal lands of the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, about 45 minutes northeast of D.C.

The DOJ said Higgs gave a gun to a friend, Willis Mark Haynes, who then shot and killed the three women. Haynes also underwent a murder trial and was convicted, but his jury did not recommend the death penalty.

Due to bodies being found on federal land, Higgs was tried in federal court. Castaneda said the murders were “particularly senseless,” but were far from the only violence happening in the area at the time.

“This happened at the tail end of just a really dark time in the D.C. area’s history,” Castaneda noted, referencing a time period spanning the late 1980s to the mid 1990s when 400-500 homicides were reported annually in the D.C. area.

Castaneda said the murders were initially believed to be tied to drug activity, but investigators soon realized that the victims were far removed from a criminal lifestyle.

What happened the night of the triple murders, according to government evidence:



“In fact, they were incredibly wholesome young women,” Castaneda said, “Tamika Black, she worked as a teacher’s aide in a private school; Tanji Jackson worked at a high school; and Mishann Chinn worked with a children’s choir in Temple Hills, which is just outside of D.C.”

These women all had loved ones who attended Higgs’s trial, although Castaneda said they asked for privacy from the media.

The reporter does remember one visual from the closing arguments, though, that he referenced when asked about the victims’ families’ grieving process.

“One of the prosecutors held up a rock and said this was the weight that the families were carrying.”

Castaneda said he has heard family members of victims whose killers are executed say it does not give them closure; he said it’s impossible to know the true weight of their grief, but that there’s “no doubt that they are still grieving the loss of their loved ones.”

***

Higgs is scheduled to be executed Friday evening at 6 p.m. at the Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary. If his execution is carried out, he will be the 13th federal inmate executed since the resumption of federal executions in July 2020.

There have been appeals filed in connection with the execution, citing concerns over the fact that Higgs contracted COVID-19 in December 2020. The appeals process has been part of every federal execution to take place over the past seven months.

Higgs could also be the final federal execution, as President-Elect Joe Biden has repeatedly expressed opposition to the death penalty.

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