Federal death row inmate tests positive for Covid-19
Posted December 17, 2020 7:04 p.m. EST
CNN — A federal inmate scheduled for execution next month has tested positive for Covid-19, adding a new wrinkle in the Trump administration's unprecedented execution push in the weeks before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.
The legal team for Dustin Higgs -- who was convicted of ordering a triple homicide in 1996 -- said that they were notified Wednesday by the Bureau of Prisons that he had tested positive for the virus.
"This is surely the result of the super spreader executions that the government has rushed to undertake in the heart of a global pandemic," Shawn Nolan, an attorney for Higgs, said in a statement.
"Following the two executions that took place last week and one other two weeks prior, the COVID numbers at the federal prison in Terre Haute spiked enormously. Now our client is sick. We have asked the government to withdraw the execution date and we will ask the courts to intervene if they do not."
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to CNN's request for comment.
Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the US District Court for the District of Columbia said in a court order Wednesday evening that an update on Higgs' condition should be provided on or before December 28 as well as "whether the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland has designated a state other than Maryland to carry out Plaintiff Higgs' execution."
Higgs' diagnosis is sure to fuel fresh scrutiny of the federal government's list of scheduled executions during the coronavirus pandemic.
No state has held an execution since July, and several state executions have been postponed for Covid-related reasons, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Yet the federal government is slated to have executed a total of 13 federal death row inmates before Inauguration Day.
Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center Robert Dunham told CNN in a previous interview that executions are possible super spreader events because of the amount of people involved.
"The decision to move forward with all these super spreader events in the midst of a pandemic that has already killed a quarter of a million Americans is historically unprecedented," Dunham said.
The recent executions coincide with a new push from more than three dozen members of Congress calling on Biden's incoming administration to prioritize abolishing the death penalty in all jurisdictions.
While Biden has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty and to give incentives to states to stop seeking death sentences as a part of his criminal justice reform plan, 40 members of Congress and three congresspersons-elect want to make sure the practice ends on his first day in office.
Still, Higgs' execution is set to take place on January 15, five days before Biden officially takes office.
Higgs' co-defendant and the convicted triggerman received life without parole for the 1996 killings of three women in Maryland. Higgs was convicted under a theory that even though he hadn't pulled the trigger, he had ordered the killings, his attorney said. One of the co-defendants testified that Higgs did order the shootings.