Sonia Sotomayor’s Powerful Dissent Challenges Trump Administration’s Execution of Dustin Higgs

On Friday, Dustin Higgs became the thirteenth person to be executed since July 2020 under the Trump administration. Despite a well-supported petition, the execution went ahead after the Supreme Court vacated a stay in Higgs’s case. However, Supreme Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor both issued dissents regarding the decision, and Justice Elena Kagan “noted that she would have denied the petition,” per Law & Crime.

“After seventeen years without a single federal execution, the Government has executed twelve people since July,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent. “They are Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken, Lezmond Mitchell, Keith Nelson, William LeCroy Jr., Christopher Vialva, Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois, Lisa Montgomery, and, just last night, Corey Johnson. Today, Dustin Higgs will become the thirteenth. To put that in historical context, the Federal Government will have executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades.”

Referencing a 2019 change in protocol regarding the drugs used in executions, Sotomayor continued, “This rapid pace required those facing execution to fast-track challenges to their sentences. Rather than permit an orderly resolution of these suits, the Government consistently refused to postpone executions and sought emergency relief to proceed before courts had meaningful opportunities to determine if the executions were legal.”

Sotomayor also expressed concern at the speed with which executions had been scheduled. “Throughout this expedited spree of executions, this Court has consistently rejected inmates’ credible claims for relief. The Court has even intervened to lift stays of execution that lower courts put in place, thereby ensuring those prisoners’ challenges would never receive a meaningful airing,” Sotomayor wrote. “The Court made these weighty decisions in response to emergency applications, with little opportunity for proper briefing and consideration, often in just a few short days or even hours. Very few of these decisions offered any public explanation for their rationale.”

“This is not justice,” Sotomayor said. “After waiting almost two decades to resume federal executions, the Government should have proceeded with some measure of restraint to ensure it did so lawfully. When it did not, this Court should have. It has not. Because the Court continues this pattern today, I dissent.”

According to NBC News, Higgs was “convicted in the 1996 kidnapping and killings of three women in a Maryland wildlife refuge.” Having been sentenced to death row in 2001, Higgs had recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, per Business Insider, with many opposing his execution on health grounds.

Prior to July 2020, an execution had not taken place in the United States for 17 years. As reported by NBC News, “No president in more than 120 years had overseen as many federal executions” as Donald Trump.

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