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Arizona judge denies execution stay despite claims of mental incompetency

An Arizona judge on Wednesday rejected a death row inmate’s motion to stay his execution slated for May 11 based on claims he is mentally incompetent.

Pinal County Superior Court Judge Robert Olson heard oral arguments Tuesday to determine whether the execution of convicted murderer Clarence Dixon should be stayed.

In 2008, Dixon was convicted of murder 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 Tempe, Arizona, cold-case detective Tom Magazzeni investigated the matter and matched Dixon’s DNA to a national database.

Olson concluded late Tuesday he would not stay Dixon’s execution, finding the inmate is mentally competent.

The judge recognized Dixon’s mental illness given the expert testimony of Dr. Lauro Amezcua-Patiño, an expert for the defense.

Amezcua-Patiño testified Tuesday to Dixon’s lack of judicial understanding of his execution in his 2012 and 2021 psychological assessments. The physician and psychiatrist with 30 years of expertise in diagnosing and treating people with psychotic disorders had diagnosed Dixon with schizophrenia.

But Olson stopped short of classifying Dixon as incompetent.

“This determination, however, does not decide the question of competency,” Olson wrote. “Rather, this threshold determination requires the court to further consider whether defendant’s mental state is so distorted by this mental illness that he lacks a rational understanding of the state’s rationale for his execution.”

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Defense attorney Eric Zuckerman told the court Tuesday that the federal constitutional standard governing mental competency requires an assessment affirming that Dixon cannot rationally understand the state’s reasons for executing.

Olson dismissed rationality concerns by pointing to Dixon’s unique defense in his 2007 murder trial, his “NAU legal challenge” defense.

Dixon chose to represent himself at trial. There, he argued he was arrested unlawfully during a 1985 sexual assault investigation by Northern Arizona University police. He claimed he would never have been put on trial for Bowdoin’s murder if NAU police had not arrested him and taken his DNA unlawfully.

“On the one hand, this is an elegant theory that could make all of his legal problems go away; on the other hand, the chance of success with this argument was highly improbable (if not nonexistent), yet the defendant remains unbending in his commitment to this argument, whether due to hubris, poor judgment, a longshot strategy for lack of a better argument, or a delusion, as defendant claims,” Olson wrote.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Olson also referred to this as a “Hail Mary” defense.

“The court rejects defendant’s assertion that this is dispositive of the issue before this court, but it clearly provides some insight into the defendant’s rational understanding in regard to the state’s rationale for his execution,” Olson wrote.

Olson noted Dixon’s intelligence as gleaned from his court filings.

“Dr. Patiño testified as to the different characteristics with schizophrenia that are typical for persons of low intelligence versus high intelligence, including the fact that persons of higher intelligence can have higher levels of functioning,” Olson wrote. “And the court notes that the defendant has shown sophistication, coherent and organized thinking, and fluent language skills in the pleadings and motions that he has drafted and that were entered into evidence as exhibits, combined with the fact that he previously earned an income from other inmates for drafting pleadings for hire.”

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

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 that’s required.

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“The Supreme Court in Panetti rejected an incompetency test predicated on a prisoner’s awareness that he committed murder,” said Bass, citing 2007’s Panetti v. Quarterman in the hearing Tuesday. “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.”

Olson did not see a parallel.

“The court further finds that Clarence Wayne Dixon has not met his burden to rebut this presumption, by a preponderance of the evidence, to show that his mental state is so distorted by a mental illness that he lacks a rational understanding of the state’s rationale for his execution,” Olson wrote.

Zuckerman said they will appeal the judge’s decision.

“We will ask the Arizona Supreme Court to apply the correct standard and ensure that Mr. Dixon is not executed while mentally incompetent in violation of the Eighth Amendment,” Zuckerman said in an interview.

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