My Brother Was Condemned to Death—Then He Was Condemned to Covid-19

My Brother Was Condemned to Death—Then He Was Condemned to Covid-19

My Brother Was Condemned to Death—Then He Was Condemned to Covid-19

As the Trump administration races to execute as many people as possible, and as Covid-19 rips through prisons, my brother is fighting for his life on two fronts.


My brother, Billie Allen, has been fighting for his life on two fronts. He has waged the first of these fights from federal death row, against a legal system that was not designed to find truth or enact real justice. He has waged the second fight from hospital beds, plagued by health issues that affect his very ability to prove his innocence. As Billie’s sister—and his best friend—I am more than a witness. My brother’s fight is my fight. His loss of freedom is mine.

My fear has increased sharply these last months as both of my brother’s fights took a dangerous turn. As the lame-duck Trump administration continues its race to kill as many people on death row as it can before the inauguration—10 people on federal death row have been executed in less than six months, with three more execution dates scheduled before January 20—Billie’s name could be called at any time. And on December 16, as Covid-19 continued to rip through prisons, including federal death row, I received a phone call from my brother: Billie had tested positive for the virus.

When I heard the news, my stomach sank. Billie’s health is already precarious: In 2011, a large mass was detected on his stomach, leading to a diagnosis of a rare form of cancer. Since then, my brother has been in and out of the hospital with increasing frequency. At times, he has lost so much blood that his cell count dropped to dangerous levels. He told me just last month that he worried he wouldn’t survive Covid-19 were he to contract it. Then, after sharing news of his diagnosis, I stopped hearing from him.

For days, I couldn’t get any updates on my brother’s health because the prison is on lockdown and Billie’s ability to communicate with the outside world has been stripped from him. So, I was left to worry and imagine: to worry that my brother’s condition had taken a serious turn for the worse, to imagine him fighting to breathe so that he could continue to fight to prove his innocence. Not knowing about my brother’s health, not knowing whether he may still face an execution date—the uncertainty and stress of both were interwoven.

Still, I tried not to panic, and instead held onto my brother’s strength and indomitable spirit. I reminded myself of Billie telling me about the time in the hospital when he felt his body urging him to let go and finally be free. But that’s not the freedom he wants, my brother told me then—not yet, anyway. Not until he is able to prove his innocence, and come home to his mother and me.

Billie was wrongfully convicted for the 1997 murder of Richard Heflin, a bank security guard in St. Louis, Mo. His trial attorneys neglected to investigate or present any evidence on his behalf, and the courts have refused until now to grant relief, despite the growing evidence of Billie’s innocence. DNA testing of a leather strap found at the scene could conclusively prove that a shooter who is not my brother was at the scene of the murder (Billie has already tested negative as a DNA match), yet the federal government refuses to conduct the tests, and the courts have not forced them. Moreover, the getaway van that the killers used exploded, yet there was no evidence of petroleum byproducts found on my brother’s clothing. His trial attorneys failed to challenge false and misleading witness testimony or call any witnesses on my brother’s behalf, including a security guard who would tell the FBI that he saw Billie at a shopping mall, miles away from the crime scene; another witness stated that they had seen someone other than my brother fleeing from the crime scene.

When Billie began his fight decades ago, I naively believed that the justice system was established in order to find the truth—and that “due process” would lead to true justice. What I have learned since then is that the system serves to protect convictions rather than truth, and finality is more important than fairness. I now understand that—though Billie is uniquely important to me and my family—my brother’s case is far from unique. I have gotten to know other innocent men whose stories mirror so many aspects of my brother’s. Dustin Higgs—Billie’s friend who also tested positive for Covid-19—is fighting to prove his innocence as well. In addition to other exculpating evidence, Dustin’s codefendant, Willis Haynes, wrote an affidavit in 2012 affirming that Haynes—not Dustin—committed the killings. Yet Haynes was sentenced to life without parole, while Dustin received death—a penalty the government wants to carry out on January 15.

Day after day, night after night, I do all I can for my brother. I reach out to attorneys to ask them to look at Billie’s evidence. I organize events. I engage the press. My family keeps telling me to take a break. But how can I rest when the federal government has taken 10 lives, and wants to take my brother’s life, Dustin’s life, and the lives of Lisa Montgomery and Corey Johnson?

How can I stop when I know my brother is not only fighting to prove his innocence but also fighting to survive Covid-19?

On January 4, after weeks of very little information on my brother’s health, my phone rang at last. It was Billie. He had checked himself out of the hospital in order to meet deadlines on legal filings. Though his Covid-19 symptoms have lessened, his other health issues continue to haunt him. I’m relieved—at least I know he’s conscious and not on a respirator—but I’m also angry. Angry that my brother had to sacrifice medical care in order to wage his legal battle. Furious that this administration is pushing through these executions in the midst of a pandemic in which incarcerated people are particularly vulnerable. Outraged that my government kills any person in prison at any time—especially innocent ones, like Billie and Dustin.

But this anger also fuels me, and I know it fuels Billie as well. My anger has become my strength and my hope. It pushes me, like my brother, past exhaustion and illness.

At the same time, Billie and I both refuse to let our anger make us hate those who have harmed us. My brother and I are fighting to live—and being consumed by hatred would mean the death of who we are.

So we fight. We fight this system. We fight this pandemic. We fight so that Dustin, Lisa, and Corey may live. So that my brother can come home, where we will continue struggling for true justice, side by side.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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