WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has scheduled three more federal executions during the lame-duck period before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, including two just days before his inauguration.
The announcement comes a day after the federal Bureau of Prisons carried out the eighth federal execution this year after a 17-year hiatus, and it is likely to increase pressure on Biden to take a public stance on whether his administration would continue to schedule executions once he is sworn in. Advocacy groups have called on the Trump administration to pause all executions until Biden takes office.
Representatives for the Biden transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday night.
In a court filing Friday night, the Justice Department said it was scheduling the executions of Alfred Bourgeois for Dec. 11 and Cory Johnson and Dustin Higgs for Jan. 14 and 15. Two other executions had already been scheduled for this year, including the first woman scheduled to be executed by the federal government in about six decades — though on Thursday, a federal judge ruled that execution could not proceed before the end of the year.
Prosecutors say Bourgeois tortured, sexually molested, and then beat his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to death. Court records say Bourgeois repeatedly beat the young girl and punched her in the face, whipped her with an electrical cord and beat her with a belt so hard that it broke. He also allegedly burned her feet with a cigarette lighter and hit her in the head with a baseball bat until her head swelled.
Johnson was one of three crack cocaine dealers convicted in a string of murders. Prosecutors said he killed seven people in in an attempt to expand the territory of a Richmond, Virginia, gang and silence informants. His co-defendants James H. Roane Jr. and Richard Tipton, members of same drug gang, are also on death row.
Johnson’s lawyers argue their client is intellectually disabled, and thus it would be unconstitutional to put him to death. The Supreme Court has held that it is unlawful to execute a person who is of such a low intelligence that they can’t function in society.
But they argue that “no jury or court has ever listened to the evidence at a hearing to decide if he has intellectual disability.”
“We are not aware of any other federal death penalty prisoner who has never had a single evidentiary hearing at which he could present his intellectual disability evidence. The government should not proceed with Mr. Johnson’s execution in the absence of a thorough and fair opportunity for him to present this evidence,” the lawyers, Ronald J. Tabak and Donald P. Salzman, said in a statement.
Higgs was convicted of ordering the 1996 murders of three women, Tamika Black, Mishann Chinn and Tanji Jackson, at a federal wildlife center near Beltsville, Maryland. Prosecutors say Higgs and two others abducted the women after Higgs became enraged because one of the women rebuffed his advances at party.
Higgs’ attorney, Sean Nolan, said his client didn’t kill anyone, had ineffective attorneys and didn’t deserve the death penalty. Higgs’ co-defendant, who prosecutors said carried out the killings, was not sentenced to death and Nolan said it is “arbitrary and inequitable to punish Mr. Higgs more severely than the person who committed the murders.”
“Mr. Higgs deserves clemency because of the unfair sentencing disparity ... and because, despite the tragedy and hardship of his early life, he has been a model prisoner and is an active parent who is essential to the well-being of his son,” Nolan said.