WASHINGTON - A federal appeals court has denied a triple murderer's request for a retrial in the 1996 kidnapping and slaying of three women in the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge.
Dustin John Higgs claimed that the government violated his right to a fair trial when it failed to inform him of evidence from an accomplice's trial, evidence that Higgs said would shed new light on the case.
But a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday that the evidence against Higgs was indisputable and that a retrial would not likely reverse his conviction or the jury's decision to impose nine death sentences on him.
While the evidence from accomplice Willis Mark Haynes' trial may have cast more doubt on Haynes -- the triggerman, who got life in prison -- it would not have lessened Higgs' crime, the appeals court said.
Higgs, Haynes and Victor Gloria were at Higgs' Laurel apartment on the night of Jan. 26, 1996, with Tanji Jackson, Tamika Black and Mishann Chinn, all from Washington, D.C. But Higgs and Jackson began fighting, and she threatened him with a kitchen knife.
The women ran out of the apartment, with Jackson yelling that she would get even with Higgs. As he watched from the window, he saw Jackson stop and write down the license plate number of his van.
Higgs grabbed his coat, a .38-caliber pistol and told Haynes and Gloria to come along. They drove to where the women were walking and Haynes convinced them to get in the van for a ride back to the District.
But Higgs drove instead to the Patuxent refuge, where he pulled over and ordered the women out of the car. He then handed his pistol to Haynes, who got out and shot all three women.
A passing driver noticed the bodies on the roadside later that morning, and police found Jackson's notebook nearby with Higgs' address and his van's tag number inside.
But it was not until Gloria was arrested two years later on a drug charge that police were able to arrest Haynes and Higgs. The two were indicted in December 1998 on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and use of firearms in the commission of a violent crime, but tried separately in 2000.
At trial, Haynes conceded that he pulled the trigger, but said he was pressured by Higgs to shoot the women.
"The theory was . . . that Mr. Haynes was under Mr. Higgs' influence and may have been acting out as a result of orders he received from Mr. Higgs," said Joshua Treem, the lawyer who represented Haynes.
"He was more or less taken in by Mr. Higgs. They were living together at the time. Or had been on and off for a period of time," Treem said. "Obviously he had some role in his life, some influential role."
But prosecutors also interviewed two Charles County Detention Center inmates who said Haynes claimed a bigger role in the killings.
One inmate said Haynes claimed to be a partner with Higgs, and that they murdered the women because the victims owed them drug money. Another said Haynes "had to kill" one of the women because she was trying to set him up.
But Higgs' lawyer said he only learned of those witnesses after reviewing Haynes' trial record -- after Higgs had been convicted and sentenced to death.
The attorney, Timothy Joseph Sullivan, said the inmates' statements would have made Haynes and Higgs "equally culpable" in the eyes of the jury. The government's failure to provide those statements violated the "Brady rule," which requires full disclosure of evidence, he said, and for that reason Higgs should get a new trial.
The appeals court disagreed, saying that a Brady violation only occurs when "there is a reasonable probability that the suppressed evidence would have produced a different verdict." The court said there was nothing in the statement that "contradicts the overwhelming evidence of Higgs' predominant role" in the case.
"We don't believe that the 4th Circuit was correct in its analysis," Sullivan said.
If jurors had heard that testimony, he said, they might not have held Higgs so responsible and may have given him a lesser sentence. Sullivan said he plans to appeal to the Supreme Court.
-30- CNS 04-21-04