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Arizona executes man for 1978 murder of college student

Clarence Dixon was defiant to the end, saying, "Let's do this shit."

FLORENCE, Ariz. (CN) — Arizona carried out its first execution in seven years Wednesday morning, lethally injecting Clarence Dixon with pentobarbital for killing an Arizona State University college student in 1978. His attorneys had previously hoped to stay his execution based on mental incompetency.  

Dixon, 66, 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.

Less than a day after the Arizona Supreme Court denied Dixon's final appeal, he was taken to the death chamber in Florence where he was injected with pentobarbital. Medical personnel declared him deceased at 10:30 a.m.

“The Arizona Supreme Court should follow the laws,” said Dixon in his final statement Wednesday. “They denied my appeals and petitions to change the outcome of this trial. I do and will always proclaim innocence. Now, let's do this shit.”

Dixon badgered the doctors prior to his final moment.

“Make sure you miss the first time,” said Dixon. “And teach me a lesson.”

Dixon gave his last words after the drugs went in at 10:19 a.m.

“Maybe I'll see you on the other side, Deana, I don't know you and I don't remember you,” said Dixon before he passed.

Bowdoin’s sister, Leslie Bowdoin James witnessed Dixon’s final moments.

“We should have been able to grow old together,” she said after Dixon’s execution. “You know as sisters will do, we fought we hugged and we negotiated our way through 21 years together. I have indelible memories of her driving up to Flagstaff in her little green Pinto to see me at college. And I cherish our train travels in Europe during one of her last summers.”

Deana was just eight credit hours away from graduating. According to James, she was supposed to be the pride of the family, the one to raise beautiful grandkids and work at a fantastic firm.

Deana wrote creatively, but kept it from her family.

“She wrote amazing poetry,” James said at the Wednesday press conference. “We didn’t know this until I found a notebook of her work as I cleaned out her apartment that January. My mom’s victim impact statement to the jury included one of those poems.”

To James, Dixon’s execution took too long. It took 43 years for her to find justice for her slain sister. During that time she lost a son, husband and both of her parents.

"I feel old," said James about the wait.

To others, Dixon's story was emblematic of larger social justice issues.

Dixon grew up on a Navajo Nation reservation. According to his attorneys, he grew up in a physically and emotionally abusive home rife with neglect. At age 12 he was left to walk alone to a hospital, in order to fly to Phoenix for a heart surgery.

Dixon’s attorneys told a clemency board in April that deprivations and abuses at the hand of his parents led him to experience severe depression and suicidal ideation at a young age. His genetic predisposition for mental illness and his abuse quickened his psychological downfall.

By the time he was 21, his attorneys say he was entirely in the throes of mental illness and was already in court on felony abuse charges.

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 and Dixon slipped through the judicial cracks.

“Ms. Bowdoin would still be with us if the county attorney’s office had obeyed Judge O’Connor’s order back in 1978,” O’Connor’s former bailiff Garrett Simpson told a clemency board in April.

According to Eric Zuckerman, an attorney for Dixon, his client knew he was facing death but he thought they were putting him to death due to schizophrenia-induced state conspiracy — a tell-tale sign he was incompetent.

Dixon chose to represent himself in the Bowdoin murder 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.

In early April, his attorneys filed a motion in Pinal County Superior Court to see if Dixon was mentally competent for execution. The hearing took place May 3, and Dixon's motion was denied the same day.

Pinal County Superior Court Judge Robert Olson found his mental state was not so distorted by a mental illness that he lacked a rational understanding of the state’s rationale for his execution.

Death penalty protesters gather at the state capitol in Phoenix, May 10, 2022. (Michael McDaniel/CN)

“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,” wrote Olson in his findings.

Dr. Lauro Amezcua-Patino, a key witness for Dixon’s team, testified to his attorney’s claims in that hearing. He claimed Dixon lacked of judicial understanding of his execution.

Patino assessed Dixon with schizophrenia in 2012 and 2021.

“He goes back to this same premise,” said Amezcua-Patino on Dixon’s understanding of his guilt and death sentence. “’They’re afraid of me embarrassing them.’”

According to his attorneys, Dixon suffered from persistent visual and auditory hallucinations throughout the last 30 years.

“Prosecutors have a solemn responsibility to speak on behalf of all victims, and especially for those who can no longer speak for themselves,” said Attorney General Mark Brnovich in a statement Wednesday. “My focus was on securing justice for Deana Bowdoin, her family and our communities, and that has been achieved today."

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