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January 27, 2023 5:16 pm

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Trump Investigations

MintPress News: The Execution of Dustin Higgs and the Tradition of Capital Punishment

Dustin Higgs, an African American man from Poughkeepsie, New York, became the thirteenth federal inmate to meet his end at the hands of the state in the span of one year since Trump’s Department of Justice directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to resume federal executions in the summer of 2019.

The 48-year old father of one was pronounced dead at 1:23 am on Saturday, January 16 from lethal injection. A petition for clemency was signed by nearly 2 million people and Higgs’ lawyers argued that “there [was] no principled basis [on which] to execute” their client, given that another man is already serving a life sentence for the triple homicide for which he was convicted. 

The case illustrates the gross shortcomings of the American justice system when it comes to African Americans, who are often forced to navigate a slew of legal traps, technicalities, and discrimination in the court system that keeps sends Black people to prison at a far higher rate than any other ethnicity. 

Willis Haynes, the man convicted of actually murdering three young women in 1996 while Higgs waited in a car nearby, signed a sworn statement denying Higgs had made him “do anything that night or ever.” Nevertheless, prosecutors forged ahead with their contention that Higgs had masterminded the shooting based on the testimony of a “highly suspect” witness, which ultimately proved to cement the ruling against Higgs, who was in the midst of serving a 17-year sentence for an unrelated 1997 drug offense.

In what might constitute one of the bleakest examples of historical irony and hypocrisy, Higgs’ long prison sentence over possession of cocaine was a direct result of a bill created and sponsored by the very man who is on the verge of becoming the next president of the United States and availing himself of his unjust execution for political gain.


Political Opportunism 

Despite Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer’s dissenting opinions on the last and final order for summary execution by the Trump administration, all of the previous twelve victims of America’s renewed embrace of capital punishment were allowed to proceed without objection from the highest court in the land.

The sudden condemnation by the two Democrat-appointed justices bears all the hallmarks of political opportunism as Joe Biden gets ready to assume the office of the presidency in just a few days. The timely rebuke buttresses Biden’s own campaign promise to eliminate the death penalty and obfuscates the principal role he played in greatly expanding its application as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, known colloquially as the Biden Crime Bill, which he drafted together with the National Association of Police Organizations. 

Dustin Higgs

Dustin Higgs at the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Ind. Pahoto | Federal Bureau of Prisons via AP

The controversial legislation served as a cornerstone for the massive growth of the United States prison population, which today comprises a staggering 25% of all locked up people in the world, dwarfing China­ – a country with three times the population of the U.S. – in both per capita and absolute measures. 

Drawing attention to Trump’s state killing spree also shifts attention away from soon-to-be Vice President Kamala Harris’ record as California’s top prosecutor. The former AG has built her political career around opposition to the death penalty, but her record presents a stark contrast in this regard, including her decision to appeal the decision of a district court judge who had overturned the death sentence of death row inmate, Ernest Dewayne Jones. 


A Brief History of Capital Punishment

On the day the nation celebrates the life of another African American martyr killed by the state – albeit in extrajudicial fashion­ – the story of Dustin John Higgs serves as a reminder that capital punishment has never been about justice as much as it has been about asserting the power of the state.

While public executions by kings and mobs date back centuries, the official state-sanctioned killings tied to a law enforcement apparatus that we know today as capital punishment began in eighteenth-century England when stealing a spoon could mean getting sent to the gallows and, eventually, hung on Tyburn tree.

In Peter Linebaugh’s groundbreaking work, “The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century,” the inextricable links between the rise of capitalism and capital punishment are made explicit. Scouring records and pamphlets of the age, Linebaugh successfully portrays how the burgeoning British state applied the death penalty to enforce a new kind of socio-economic contract, which sought to break the people’s entrenched habit of receiving payment for their work and services in-kind and accustom them to accept state-issued money, instead.

One of the most famous and illustrative cases is that of a chimney sweep who was framed for burglary (in some accounts for murder) and executed, despite widespread knowledge of his innocence among the general population. The hanging of Sam Hall survives in a song, which bears his name in the title and whose lyrics are based on a pamphlet that was passed along at his hanging in 1707.

His real crime had been the invention of a long broom that could be used to sweep chimneys thereby eliminating the need to use children for the often dangerous work. A whole industry had emerged after the great fire of 1666 in London, which consisted of children as young as 4 being purchased from impoverished families by a “master sweep” who would teach them how to crawl through the small spaces inside the city’s ubiquitous chimneys to clean the charcoal-infested crevices. 

Hall’s disruption of the cruel business venture, which left children disfigured and suffering from severe health problems, would cost him his life as well as his reputation, since the original song has been adapted through the centuries to portray him as a petty criminal, instead of the hero he was. 

The story of Sam Hall is, in essence, the same story of Dustin Higgs and all African Americans who descend from slaves and were simultaneously subjected to horrors even worse than the poor young chimney sweeps of Victorian England. Their oppression continues today via other means of institutional racism, most notably present in the American justice system, which continues the capitalist tradition of capital punishment.

Sam Hall Lyrics (derived from a pamphlet distributed at his hanging):

 Well, my name it is Sam Hall, Sam Hall.
 Yes, my name it is Sam Hall, it is Sam Hall.
 My name it is Sam Hall an’ I hate you, one and all.
 An’ I hate you, one and all
 Damn your eyes.
 I killed a man, they said, so they said.
 I killed a man, they said, so they said.
 I killed a man, they said an’ I smashed in his head.
 An’ I left him laying dead,
 Damn his eyes.
 But a-swinging, I must go, I must go.
 A-swinging, I must go, I must go.
 A-swinging, I must go while you critters down below,
 Yell up, “Sam, I told you so.”
 Well, damn your eyes!
 I saw Molly in the crowd, in the crowd.
 I saw Molly in the crowd, in the crowd.
 I saw Molly in the crowd an’ I hollered, right out loud
 “Hey there Molly, ain’t you proud?
 “Damn your eyes.”
 Then the Sheriff, he came to, he came to.
 Ah, yeah, the Sheriff, he came to, he came to.
 The Sheriff, he come to an he said, “Sam, how are you?”
 An I said, “Well, Sheriff, how are you?”
 “Damn your eyes.”
 My name is Samuel, Samuel.
 My name is Samuel, Samuel.
 My name is Samuel, an’ I’ll see you all in hell.  

Feature photo | | Editing by MintPress News

Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.

The post The Execution of Dustin Higgs and the Tradition of Capital Punishment  appeared first on MintPress News.

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