The US government carried out the 13th and final federal execution under President Donald Trump's administration early on Saturday morning, just four days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office with a promise to try to end the death penalty.
Dustin Higgs, 48, was pronounced dead at 1:23 a.m. EST (0623 GMT), the federal Bureau of Prisons said in a statement after a late-night Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for the execution to proceed.
Since resuming federal executions last year after a 17-year hiatus, Trump, a long-time proponent of capital punishment, has overseen more executions than any U.S. president since the 19th century, including three this week.
Higgs was convicted and sentenced to death in 2001 for overseeing the kidnapping and murder of three women on a federal wildlife reserve in Maryland in 1996: Tanji Jackson, Tamika Black and Mishann Chinn.
In his final words, Higgs sounded calm and defiant at the Justice Department's death chamber in its prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, a reporter who served as a media witness said.
"I'd like to say I am an innocent man," he said before lethal injections were administered, mentioning the three women by name. "I did not order the murders."
Some of his victims' relatives attended, and a sister of Jackson released a statement, although the Bureau of Prisons did not share the sister's name.
The US Department of Justice planned to execute Higgs with lethal injections of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, at its death chamber in its prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Five hours after Higgs was set to be executed, the US Supreme Court's conservative majority cleared the way for lethal injections to proceed by overturning a stay ordered by a federal appeals court.
The Supreme Court's ruling on Friday was consistent with its earlier decisions: it had also dismissed any orders by lower courts delaying federal executions since they were resumed last year.
The federal government executed 10 people last year, more than three times as many people as in the previous six decades, marking the first time that it had conducted more executions than all US states combined, according to a database compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. A minority of the country's 50 states still carry out executions.
End of Trump's extraordinary spree
Prior to Trump, the federal government had executed only three people since 1963.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called the execution of Higgs the end of a "cruel, inhumane and lawless" spree by the federal government.
"President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to end the federal death penalty. He must honor that commitment," Cassandra Stubbs, director of ACLU's Capital Punishment Project said.
After a failed triple date with the three women, Higgs and his accomplice, Willis Haynes, offered to drive them home but instead took them to the Patuxent Research Refuge. Prosecutors said Higgs gave Haynes a gun and told him to shoot the three women. Haynes, who confessed to being the shooter, was sentenced to life in prison, while Higgs was sentenced to death in a separate trial, a disparity that his lawyers argued was grounds for clemency.
The Supreme Court agreed to the Justice Department's request to overturn an order by a lower court delaying the execution while a legal question was being resolved: federal law requires that an execution be carried out in the manner of the state in which the condemned was sentenced, but Maryland has since abolished the death penalty.
The Justice Department had unsuccessfully sought a new sentencing order from a federal judge in Maryland to allow them to execute Higgs following the procedures used in Indiana, a state that still allows lethal injections and that is home to the department's execution chamber.
The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals scheduled a hearing on the matter for Jan. 27, nearly two weeks after Higgs' scheduled execution, which the Justice Department said left it hamstrung unless the Supreme Court overturned the delay.
Death row prisoners with Covid-19
Higgs and another death row inmate, Corey Johnson, were diagnosed with Covid-19 in December, but on Wednesday the Supreme Court rejected an order by a federal judge in Washington delaying their executions for several weeks to allow their lungs to heal. The Justice Department executed Johnson on Thursday night.
After the ACLU sued on behalf of other inmates at the prison complex, a federal judge in Indiana ruled that the executions of Johnson and Higgs could only proceed if the US Bureau of Prisons enforced several measures to stem the spread of Covid-19.
One measure ordered by Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson was that prison and execution officials observe "mask requirements," but media witnesses and Johnson's spiritual adviser, Rev. Bill Breeden, who was at Johnson's side, said at least one of two U.S. officials in the room did not have a mask on for many minutes.
The ACLU unsuccessfully asked the judge to find the Bureau of Prisons in contempt of court and order Higgs' execution be halted. Asked why it should not be found in contempt, the Bureau of Prisons responded on Thursday evening by saying "mask requirements" was not clearly defined, and that it was necessary for officials to remove or not wear their mask for "clear communication."
Alexa Cave, Higgs' sister, said she believed life in prison would have been a more just punishment.
"They don't have freedom at all in any sense of the word," she said in an interview on Friday, before Higgs was executed. "What purpose does it serve to kill you? It brings nothing back."
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)