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Arizona death row inmate denied clemency despite claims he is mentally incompetent

The Arizona Board of Executive Clemency declined a request for clemency by reasons of mental incompetency brought by a man convicted of killing an Arizona State University student in 1977.

The board declined to stay Clarence Dixon’s execution, despite his attorneys’ assertions that he is not mentally competent and was not when he represented himself in his murder trial.

Dixon was convicted of murder in 2008 and sentenced to death for the 1978 killing of 21-year-old Deana Bowdoin. Bowdoin’s case was dormant for 23 years before a Tempe, Arizona, cold-case detective Tom Magazzeni investigated the matter and matched Dixon’s DNA to a national database.

Amanda Bass, an attorney for Dixon, said he faced traumatic childhood abuse and neglect in his youth. He has also received multiple diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia over the years.

Dixon’s attorneys told the board that deprivations and abuses at the hand of his parents led him to experience depression and suicidal ideation at a young age. By the time he was 21, his attorneys say he was entirely in the throes of mental illness and was already in court over felony abuses.

Cary Sandman, another attorney for Dixon, told the board the judge in the murder trial felt Dixon handled himself well and appeared competent to proceed. Sandman says he was and is still mentally incompetent because he doesn’t understand what’s going on.

“He still has schizophrenia,” Sandman said. “It’s not a curable disease. He doesn’t have a rational understanding of the state’s reasons for executing.”

According to Sandman, Dixon knows he’s facing death, but he thinks the state is executing him because of a schizophrenic-induced conspiracy.

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 “He knows, I think, that he is sentenced to death and that on May 11, his execution is scheduled,” said Sandman to the board. “But his focus is on the wrongful arrest, he has a lot of issues around paranoia and conspiracies as to why no one’s really believing that. Maybe they do believe it, but they’re not taking action on it.”

In 1977, Dixon was arrested in Tempe for assaulting a 15-year-old with a metal pipe, causing a severe cut to the top of her head. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sandra Day O’Connor, who would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, found Dixon not guilty by reason of insanity.

Two days before Bowdoin’s death, O’Connor ordered the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to commence civil commitment proceedings to admit Dixon to the Arizona State Hospital. Instead of proceeding immediately, the county attorney balked.

“They were supposed to do, as I recall, in [a] 10-day span and it never happened, so he just sort of drifted away,” said Garrett Simpson, a former bailiff for O’Connor, to the board. “Ms. Bowdoin would still be with us if the county attorney’s office had obeyed Judge O’Connor’s order back in 1978.”

Simpson later represented Dixon in his murder trial until Dixon elected to represent himself.

Bowdoin’s sister, Leslie Bowdoin James, spoke in favor of Dixon’s execution.

“There is not one legal, social or moral imperative for recommending reprieve or commutation of this inmate’s death sentence, a May 11th execution,” Bowdoin James said. “I’m speaking to you today from my heart.”

She also explained to the board what her sister was like growing up.

“I’m really glad and willing to talk to you about Deana, about her life and about what it was like for us,” James said. “What I’m most grateful for is that I had three months with her, in one of her last summers, and we rode the trains through Europe.”

Ellen Dahl, Deputy County Attorney at Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, noted a lack of remorse from Dixon, pointing to when he told a 2008 jury, “You don’t see any remorse from me, period.”

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“Where was the mercy for Deana as she laid in her home, with a strap across her neck being sexually assaulted, looking up and seeing Mr. Dixon’s face, the last face she would see before she died,” Dahl asked the board.

Prosecution also disputed Dixon’s schizophrenia diagnosis.

“He’s never been treated for any psychiatric or psychotic diagnosis in the Department of Corrections,” said John Schneider, with the prosecution. “This inmate has been with them for 40 years. I’m rounding my numbers, but there’s no records, at least not that the state has been presented, for this tribunal indicating that he’s had any psychotic diagnosis.”

The board voted unanimously not to grant a commutation of Dixon’s sentence.

“What was really missing for me was any kind of showing of remorse or acceptance of responsibility,” said Chairwoman Mina Mendez. “And I also weighed the very horrific nature of this offense and the senseless taking on this young woman’s life. And all of those things lead me to believe that this is not a case or a recommendation of commutation of sentence to be made.”

Sandman is still pursuing another avenue for a possible reprieve. 

In early April he filed a motion in Pinal County Superior Court to determine if Dixon is mentally competent for execution. A hearing is set for May 8.

If the court does not intervene, Dixon’s execution will be the first in Arizona since the July 2014 botched execution of convicted murdered Joseph Wood, which took almost two hours by lethal injection.

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Arizona death-row inmate Clarence Dixon was already serving life for a sexual assault when DNA linked him to the 1978 murder of a woman in Tempe.