PHOENIX – A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected a request to postpone the planned execution of an Arizona prisoner in what would be the state’s first use of the death penalty in nearly eight years.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals keeps on track plans to execute 66-year-old Clarence Dixon on Wednesday morning at the state prison in Florence for his murder conviction in the 1978 killing of 21-year-old Arizona State University student Deana Bowdoin. On Tuesday evening, the appeals court declined a request by Dixon's lawyers for a larger panel of judges to hear the appeal.
Dixon’s remaining legal efforts center on his claims that he is mentally unfit to be executed and that his psychological problems prevent him from rationally understanding why the state wants to end his life.
The Arizona Supreme Court on Monday declined to review a state judge’s decision that rejected Dixon's arguments, leading his attorneys to introduce similar claims in federal court.
In rejecting Dixon’s arguments, U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa concluded the state judge had applied the correct legal standards in assessing Dixon’s mental fitness.
Even though Dixon has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Humetewa wrote that the state judge had reasonably determined that Dixon did not lack a rational understanding of the reasons for putting him to death.
Dixon appealed Humetewa's ruling on Tuesday.
Dixon’s lawyers have said their client erroneously believes he will be executed because police at Northern Arizona University wrongfully arrested him in a previous case — a 1985 attack on a 21-year-old student. His attorneys concede he was in fact lawfully arrested then by Flagstaff police.
Dixon was sentenced to life sentences in that case for sexual assault and other convictions. DNA samples taken while he was in prison later linked him to Bowdoin’s killing, which at that point had been unsolved.
Prosecutors said there was nothing about Dixon’s beliefs that prevent him from understanding the reason for the execution and pointed to court filings that Dixon himself made over the years.
In asking the federal appeals court for a stay of execution, Dixon’s lawyers argued the state court judge who considered their client's mental fitness ignored evidence showing that Dixon experiences delusions from his schizophrenia, preventing him from understanding why he is being executed.
Prosecutors argued Dixon's claim lacked merit. “The state court decision was reasonable based on the facts before it,” Jeffrey Sparks, a top attorney for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, told the appeals court.
Defense lawyers have said Dixon has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia on multiple occasions, has regularly experienced hallucinations over the past 30 years and was found “not guilty by reason of insanity” in a 1977 assault case in which the verdict was delivered by then-Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sandra Day O’Connor, nearly four years before her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bowdoin was killed two days after the verdict, according to court records.
Authorities have said Bowdoin, who was found dead in her apartment, had been raped, stabbed and strangled. Dixon had been charged with raping Bowdoin, but the charge was later dropped on statute-of-limitation grounds. He was convicted, though, in her death.
Dixon, who is blind and in declining health, is set to be the first person put to death in Arizona in nearly eight years, mainly because of problems with the state's most recent execution nearly eight years ago.
The state had to give Joseph Wood 15 doses of a two-drug combination over two hours before he died in July 2014 in an execution that his lawyers said was botched. The state now is using just one drug.