Higgs v. Watson, 011121 FED7, 20-2129

Docket Nº:20-2129
Opinion Judge:Scudder, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Dustin John Higgs, Petitioner-Appellant, v. T. J. Watson, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.
Judge Panel:Before Wood, Brennan, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:January 11, 2021
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

Dustin John Higgs, Petitioner-Appellant,


T. J. Watson, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 20-2129

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

January 11, 2021

Argued January 5, 2021

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Terre Haute Division. No. 2:16-cv-321 - Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge.

Before Wood, Brennan, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.

Scudder, Circuit Judge.

In 1996 Dustin Higgs participated in the kidnapping and murder of three young women on federal property in Maryland. Federal charges followed. A jury returned guilty verdicts across the board, and Higgs received nine death sentences. The district court also imposed a 45-year consecutive sentence for Higgs's use of a firearm during the crimes, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Housed in the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, Higgs filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241 in the Southern District of Indiana seeking to invalidate his § 924(c) convictions based on the Supreme Court's 2019 decision in United States v. Davis.

Rather than reaching the merits of this claim, the district court dismissed the petition after concluding that Higgs was unable to satisfy the savings clause in 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e) and therefore unable to pursue habeas corpus relief under § 2241. We agree. Because there is nothing structurally inadequate or ineffective about using § 2255 to bring a Davis-based claim, Higgs cannot seek relief under § 2241.



January 1996 Dustin Higgs, Willie Mark Haynes, and Victor Gloria drove from Laurel, Maryland to Washington, D.C. to pick up Tanji Jackson, Tamika Black, and Mishann Chinn. Back at Higgs's apartment, he and Jackson began arguing in the early morning hours. Jackson, Black, and Chinn then walked out. Infuriated that Jackson seemed to write down his license plate number on her way out, Higgs grabbed his gun and together with Haynes and Gloria decided to go after the three women. Upon catching up with them, Haynes lured Jackson, Black, and Chinn into Higgs's van, apparently promising them a ride home. But instead Higgs drove them to the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, federal land under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Park Police. Upon finding a secluded location and directing the women out of the van, Higgs handed his gun to Haynes, who then shot and killed Jackson, Black, and Chinn.

A federal grand jury in the District of Maryland indicted Higgs and Haynes for three counts of each of the following: first-degree premeditated murder (18 U.S.C. § 1111(a)), first-degree murder committed in the perpetration of kidnapping (18 U.S.C. § 1111(a)), kidnapping resulting in death (18 U.S.C. § 1201(a)), and using a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence (18 U.S.C. § 924(c)).

The district court severed the cases for trial. Haynes, the triggerman, was tried and convicted first. During the penalty phase of Haynes's trial, the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict on the death sentences, so the district court imposed concurrent life sentences for the murder and kidnapping convictions and a 45-year consecutive sentence for the § 924(c) offenses.

Higgs's trial came next. A jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts and recommended a death sentence for each of the murder and kidnapping counts pursuant to the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591-3598. The district court agreed with the recommendation and imposed nine death sentences, while also sentencing Higgs to 45 consecutive years for the three § 924(c) convictions. The Fourth Circuit affirmed on all fronts.


For nearly the past twenty years, Higgs has pursued postconviction relief in the District of Maryland and the Fourth Circuit. None of his efforts have succeeded, though. See, e.g., United States v. Higgs, 663 F.3d 726 (4th Cir. 2011); United States v. Higgs, 95 Fed.Appx. 37 (4th Cir. 2004). In 2016 Higgs asked the Fourth Circuit for permission to file a new § 2255 motion to challenge his § 924(c) convictions based on the Supreme Court's decision a year earlier in Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015). The Court in Johnson held that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B), was unconstitutionally vague. See id. at 596-97. The Fourth Circuit summarily denied Higgs's request.

Unable to secure relief in the circuit of his conviction, in 2016 Higgs turned to the Southern District of Indiana-the district of his confinement-for relief. He invoked 28 U.S.C. § 2241 and sought a writ of habeas corpus on the basis of Johnson. Higgs was not just seeking relief from his § 924(c) convictions. His strategy was broader and focused ultimately on vacating his death sentences. Higgs contended that relief in the first instance from his allegedly invalid § 924(c) convictions would call the entirety of his sentence into question, leading to an altogether new sentencing proceeding, at which he could seek to avoid capital punishment.

The district court stayed Higgs's § 2241 proceedings pending the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Davis. The Supreme Court decided Davis in 2019, holding that § 924(c)(3)(B), the residual clause in the definition of "crime of violence," is unconstitutionally vague. 139 S.Ct. 2319, 2336 (2019).

While the § 2241 proceeding was stayed in the Southern District of Indiana, Higgs submitted a renewed application in the Fourth Circuit seeking authorization to file another § 2255 motion. Here, too, he contended that Davis announced a new rule of constitutional law that applied to his § 924(c) convictions. The Fourth Circuit again denied Higgs's request in a summary order unaccompanied by a statement of reasons.


Back in the Southern District of Indiana, the district court lifted the stay and, after receiving supplemental briefing addressing Davis's impact on Higgs's claim, denied the § 2241 petition. A federal prisoner may seek relief under § 2241 when "the remedy by [a § 2255] motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e). As the district court explained, our precedent has interpreted the savings clause in § 2255(e) and identified a handful of situations in which § 2255 provides an inadequate or ineffective remedy. One of those circumstances includes a claim alleging a miscarriage of justice based on a new rule of statutory interpretation announced by the Supreme Court. See In re Davenport, 147 F.3d 605, 610 (7th Cir. 1998).

Higgs contended that his claim fit within the Davenport exception because, even though Davis announced a constitutional holding, the case also entailed substantial conclusions...

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