Lawyers Criticize Decision by AZ Supreme Court to Set May Execution Date for Disabled, Mentally Ill Man

By Vanguard Staff

PHOENIX, AZ – An attorney for Arizona death row prisoner Clarence Dixon criticized an Arizona Supreme Court decision to set May 11 as the execution date for the disabled man, who the attorney maintains has “severe mental illness.”

Dixon “suffers from serious mental illness as well as significant physical disabilities, including blindness. Despite the fact that the State of Arizona has yet to provide any evidence that it can reliably determine the beyond-use date of its execution drugs, today the Arizona Supreme Court set Mr. Dixon’s execution for May, 11, 2022,” said Jennifer Moreno, one of Dixon’s attorneys

“Arizona has a history of problematic executions and has not executed anyone since the horrifically mishandled execution of Joseph Wood in 2014. The State has had nearly a year to demonstrate that it will not be carrying out executions with expired drugs but has failed to do so. Under these circumstances, the execution of Mr. Dixon — a severely mentally ill, visually disabled, and physically frail member of the Navajo Nation — is unconscionable,” added Moreno.

Dixon is a member of the Navajo Nation, and “grew up on a reservation in a home rife with trauma, dominated by his painkiller-addicted father’s vicious physical and emotional abuse of Dixon, his six siblings, and their mother,” according to his supporters.

They added, “As a child, he also suffered from chronic neglect in a setting where he ate dog food as nourishment, and, at age 12, was left to walk several miles alone to a local hospital in order to be flown to Phoenix for critical heart surgery to correct a congenital heart defect with which he still suffers.”

His attorneys said Dixon has, for decades, struggled with severe mental illness. Starting at a young age, he experienced severe depression and suicidal ideations. At the time of the crime, he was a student at Arizona State University and was later forced to withdraw due to his declining mental health.

“Following charges in an unrelated assault case, several state doctors diagnosed Mr. Dixon with schizophrenia and found him to be incompetent. This led then-Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sandra Day O’Connor to find Mr. Dixon Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity,” explained the lawyers.

“The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office failed to commence civil commitment proceedings as directed by then-Judge O’Connor and Mr. Dixon was released into the community without any supervision, treatment, or mental health services. The crime for which he was sentenced to death occurred just two days later,” they added.

During his capital trial, Dixon represented himself after he, said lawyers, “senselessly fired his court-appointed attorneys because they would not raise meritless claims based on psychotically driven delusions that the evidence against him was obtained unlawfully.

“While ineffectively representing himself, Mr. Dixon was convicted and sentenced to death. The jury never knew that Mr. Dixon was legally insane at the time of the crime and did not hear critically important mitigating evidence about Mr. Dixon’s traumatic and abusive upbringing and lifelong history of severe mental illness,”  his legal team said.

Reportedly, Dixon’s mental and physical health have continued to deteriorate during his time on death row. He is now blind, extremely frail, and experiences a number of debilitating health conditions and suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, a severe mental illness expressed in delusional thinking and auditory and visual hallucinations, and he periodically experiences episodes during which he loses connection to reality.

Lawyers for Dixon provided this synopsis and criticism of the death penalty in Arizona:

  • Geography, race and poverty largely determine who is sentenced to death and who is not. Contrary to what many believe, the death penalty is not reserved for prisoners who have committed the “worst-of-the-worst” crimes. People who have committed equally or more heinous crimes have received life sentences (rather than death sentences), while others who commit much less egregious crimes face execution.
  • Arizona’s death penalty is disproportionately imposed on poor people and people of color. Although African Americans comprise only 5.2% of our state’s population,  they account for 16% of the 115 prisoners currently under sentence of death. 45% of Arizona’s death row are people of color.
  • Arizona has sentenced nearly a quarter of all Native Americans facing the death penalty in America. Only two other states, California and North Carolina, have more Native Americans on their death rows.
  • Arizona’s death penalty is concentrated largely in Maricopa County.
  • Eighty-four of the 119 death sentences in effect as of October 2020 were imposed in Maricopa County. Maricopa County accounts for approximately 61% of Arizona’s population,  but in the last 12 years, it has accounted for 84% of its death sentences.
  • Several counties do not have a single person on death row: Apache, Cochise, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, Navajo, and Santa Cruz. Coconino, La Paz, Pinal, Yavapai, and Yuma all have three or fewer death sentences.

Inadequate Legal Representation

  • Many people on Arizona’s death row were represented by lawyers who provided ineffective representation at the guilt and penalty phases of trial, including failure to show the charges were based on erroneous evidence, failure to learn their client was brain damaged, and failure to discover that their client was intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.
  • For example, one article describes how some Arizona capital defense attorneys failed to visit or communicate with their clients, disparaged them in court, conducted little to no mitigation evidence, and took on excessive capital caseloads, all to the detriment of their clients.
  • In one case, when a juror learned of mitigation evidence the trial attorney failed to introduce at sentencing, he stated, “Knowing all of that, I would have voted for life, no doubt about it.
  • Ten innocent people have been exonerated from Arizona’s death row after evidence revealed that they were sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit. That is more than one innocent person exonerated for every four who have been executed.
  • Prosecutors have relied on faulty forensic evidence, or “junk science,” to obtain capital convictions and death sentences, including types of evidence debunked by the National Academy of Sciences.  The appeals process is not designed to catch many of these mistakes and death sentences based on junk science are unreliable and risk the execution of innocent people. At least seven former death row prisoners have been exonerated or freed by new DNA evidence in Arizona.

– In 2002, Ray Krone was exonerated after new DNA evidence undermined his conviction based on discredited bite mark evidence.

– In 1992, John Henry Knapp was removed from death row due to the state’s faulty arson investigation.

– In 2005, Clarence Hill was released from death row after new DNA evidence overturned his sentence.

-In 2008, Bobby Tankersley was removed from death row due to the unreliable testimony of a forensic dentist.

  • Almost all the people on Arizona’s death row were raised under profoundly adverse circumstances. Many spent their childhoods in extreme poverty, experienced abuse and severe neglect and witnessed pervasive violence in their homes and communities. A significant percentage suffer from untreated, long-standing serious mental illness.
  • If juries had heard this crucial mitigation evidence, it is possible some would have chosen life over death.

Death Penalty Not a Deterrent

  • The death penalty is not a deterrent and actually makes us less safe by siphoning resources from programs that reduce and prevent crime. The National Research Council reviewed more than three decades of research and found no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime.  A growing number of law enforcement officials believe there are better ways to keep us safe.
  • The state has not provided any information about the source of the pentobarbital that will be used to carry out executions. Given the state’s troubled history with sourcing execution drugs and implementing execution procedures,  it is essential for the state to demonstrate the safety, efficacy and legality of the drugs as well as the readiness of the team to carry out executions by disclosing this limited and pertinent information about its execution drug.
  • Nearly all first-degree murders in Arizona are eligible for the death penalty, raising serious concerns about the constitutionality of Arizona’s death penalty statutes. As Justice Breyer, joined by three other Justices, stated in his Statement Respecting the Denial of Certiorari in Hidalgo v. Arizona, 138 S. Ct. 1054 (2018):

– In support of his Eighth Amendment challenge, the petitioner points to empirical evidence about Arizona’s capital sentence system that suggests about 98% of first-degree murder defendants in Arizona were eligible for the death penalty. That evidence is unrebutted. It points to a possible constitutional problem. And it was assumed to be true by the state courts below. Evidence of this kind warrants careful attention and evaluation.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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