Judge mulls Arizona prisoner’s mental fitness to be executed

A judge plans to issue a ruling Tuesday night on a request by an Arizona prisoner to stop his May 11 execution on the grounds that his psychological problems keep him from rationally understanding why the state wants to end his life

CORRECTION Death Penalty Arizona
CORRECTION Death Penalty Arizona

A judge plans to issue a ruling Tuesday night on a request by an Arizona prisoner to stop his May 11 execution on the grounds that his psychological problems keep him from rationally understanding why the state wants to end his life.

Lawyers for Clarence Dixon, who would be the first person executed in Arizona in nearly eight years, argued Tuesday in a court in Florence, Arizona, that executing their client for his murder conviction in the 1978 killing of 21-year-old college student Deana Bowdoin would violate protections against executing people who are mentally unfit.

Dixon’s lawyers say he 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, who tried unsuccessfully to get the Arizona Supreme Court to call off the mental competency hearing, 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 has made over the years.

“Regardless of his beliefs, his pleading for years have made clear that his execution is based on his conviction of murder and he understands the connection” between his guilty verdict and his planned execution, said prosecutor Jeffrey Sparks.

Eric Zuckerman, one of Dixon’s lawyers, said the mental health problems experienced by his client spanned four decades. Zuckerman said Dixon’s thoughts are “polluted by persecutory delusions” and he believes that the state wants to put him to death to protect lawyers and judges from what he perceives as embarrassment in the NAU case, not for his actions in Bowdoin’s killing.

In addition to contesting his mental fitness, Dixon’s lawyers made a new attempt on Tuesday to stop his execution.

They filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to hold off on putting Dixon to death until corrections officials show that the compounded pentobarbital to be used in the execution has been given an expiration date.

About a year ago, prosecutors took steps to seek the executions of Dixon and another death-row prisoner but the litigation was put on hold by the state Supreme Court due to concerns over the expiration date of the drug to be used in the lethal injections.

In the new lawsuit, Dixon’s lawyers said corrections officials gave them heavily redacted records documenting the testing of the drug, but they didn’t provide the assigned expiration date.

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Defense lawyers say 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.

On Tuesday, the Arizona Supreme Court also issued a warrant setting a June 8 execution date for another death-row prisoner, Frank Atwood, in the killing of 8-year-old Vicki Lynn Hoskinson in 1984. Authorities say Atwood kidnapped the girl, whose body was found in the desert northwest of Tucson.

The last time Arizona used the death penalty was in July 2014, when Joseph Wood was given 15 doses of a two-drug combination over two hours in an execution that his lawyers said was botched.

States including Arizona have struggled to buy execution drugs in recent years after U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies began blocking the use of their products in lethal injections.

Arizona has 113 prisoners on death row.

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