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Arizona judge mulls death row inmate’s mental competency

Pinal County Superior Court Judge Robert Olson heard oral arguments and expert testimony Tuesday to determine if he’ll stay the execution of death row inmate Clarence Dixon, currently slated for May 11.

Dixon was convicted of murder in 2008 and sentenced to death for the 1977 killing of 21-year-old Arizona State University student 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.

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

According to defense attorneys Tuesday, the federal constitutional standard governing mental incompetency requires an assessment affirming that Dixon cannot rationally understand the state’s reasons for executing him.

Eric Zuckerman, an attorney for Dixon at the hearing, said the evidence supports that standard.

“Does Clarence Dixon rationally understand the meaning and purpose of his impending execution?” asked Zuckerman in his introductory remarks. “Clarence’s schizophrenia is a thought disorder that contaminates his ability to think rationally.”

Dr. Lauro Amezcua-Patino, a key witness for the defense, testified to Spark’s claim pointing to his lack of judicial understanding of his execution in his 2012 and 2021 psychological assessments.

Amezcua-Patino is a physician and psychiatrist with 30 years of specialization in the diagnosis and treatment of people with psychotic disorders. He has diagnosed Dixon with schizophrenia.

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“He goes back to this same premise,” said Amezcua-Patino on Dixon’s understanding of why he’s being executed. “[He says,] ’They’re afraid of me embarrassing them.’”

According to Zuckerman, his client knows he’s facing death, but he thinks they’re putting him to death because of a schizophrenia-induced state conspiracy.

Dixon chose to represent himself in his murder trial on the grounds that he was arrested unlawfully after Northern Arizona University police investigated a previous case of assault. He claimed that the events leading to the murder would have never happened if NAU police, who unlawfully investigated his felony assault case, did not arrest him.

The attorneys call it a frivolous and nonsensical defense. Several years later, however, he still believes it.

Upon cross-examination, chief counsel Jeffery Sparks, from the state attorney general’s office, asked Amezcua-Patino if he agreed that Dixon was aware of the state’s intent to execute him for the murder of Bowden.

“I think I’ve testified before that he knows those facts, yes,” Amezcua-Patino said.

The prosecution built on their case by examining their expert witness, former clinical psychologist Carlos Vega, who claimed Dixon did not have schizophrenia but was instead an arrogant narcissist.

“People don’t have to be delusional in order to be arrogant, in order to be narcissistic,” Vega said during questioning. “We know that you know, politicians are particularly good at that. I can understand how someone could call it delusional. And, having heard [from] Dr. Patino, I can — I can understand the reasoning, but I don’t agree.”

According to the prosecution, a narcissistic classification would make Dixon eligible for death as it is not a debilitating mental illness.

Later, when Sparks asked if Dixon had a rational understanding of the state’s reasons for his execution, Vega responded, “Yes, he does.”

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Zuckerman, questioned the validity of Vega’s credentials.

“Dr. Vega, you’ve made some pretty sweeping conclusions after a single 70-minute video evaluation of Mr. Dixon,” said Zuckerman. “Did you do any research into what is required or recommended for performing a competency evaluation of this scale?”

Vega conceded by saying he did “very little.”

Vega is an experienced professional psychologist but has not been practicing recently, according to his admission.

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright that states can’t execute people unaware of why they’re being executed. In closing arguments, Amanda Bass, an attorney for Dixon, claimed it is not just an understanding by the prisoner that is required.

“The Supreme Court in Panetti rejected an incompetency test predicated on a prisoner’s awareness that he committed murder,” said Bass citing the 2007 high court case. “Evidence establishes that Clarence’s schizophrenic illness and the delusions that are its hallmark, prevent him from rationally understanding the state’s reasons for executing him.

In 2007, in Panetti v. Quarterman, the U.S. Supreme Court found those who are severely mentally ill may not be able to appreciate truths evident to others, such as the nature of the death penalty or the causal connection between criminal acts and punishment.

The mentally ill Panetti was granted a stay of execution.

Pinal County Superior Court Judge Robert Olson said he would have a ruling within a day or two, noting that time is of the essence.

Dixon is scheduled to be executed May 11, next Wednesday.

Arizona also issued an execution warrant for Frank Atwood Tuesday.

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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.