(CN) – A Texas plastic surgeon serving life in prison for a murder-for-hire plot does not deserve a new trial even if cellphone data showing he met with the hitman months before the murder was improperly admitted as evidence, Texas’ highest criminal court ruled Wednesday.
Landscapers found Dr. Joseph Sonnier’s body in the garage of his Lubbock home on July 11, 2012. Sonnier, 57, had been shot and stabbed the day before.
Four days later, David Shepard’s roommate called Lubbock police and said Shepard had confessed that Thomas Dixon, 55, an Amarillo plastic surgeon, had paid him to kill Sonnier, according to the case record.
Dixon reportedly offered Shepard three silver bars worth $3,000 each to kill Sonnier. Prosecutors claim Dixon targeted Sonnier because Sonnier was dating his ex-girlfriend and he wanted her back.
Shepard, 58, confessed to police. He pleaded no contest to capital murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, striking a deal with prosecutors in which he agreed to testify against Dixon.
But Shepard’s story changed on the stand. He testified he had acted alone in killing Sonnier and Dixon had only hired him to stakeout Sonnier and photograph him with other women in a ploy to win back his ex.
Shepard’s testimony led to a hung jury and the judge declared a mistrial. But in his second trial, a jury found Dixon guilty of two counts of capital murder and he was also sentenced to life without parole.
The Texas 7th Court of Appeals in Amarillo reversed Dixon’s conviction in December 2018 and ordered a new trial, finding the trial court improperly admitted into evidence cellphone location data police had obtained without a warrant.
But the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals reversed the order for a new trial on Wednesday in a unanimous ruling.
Dixon’s defense convinced the lower court that by admitting cellphone data showing Dixon had met with Shepard in Lubbock in March 2012, four months before the murder, the trial court had violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2018 ruling in Carpenter v. United States.
The high court’s 5-4 decision in that case held that accessing a suspect’s cellphone location history without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment.
Because Dixon testified he had not met with Shepard in Lubbock in March, the 7th Court of Appeals found the cellphone records had damaged Dixon’s credibility with the jury, supporting the state’s claims that he was a liar and undermining his story that he had only hired Shepard to plant cameras in Sonnier’s home and spy on him.
But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found the cellphone evidence was harmless as plenty of other evidence implicated Dixon.
“Because this was a murder-for-hire case, the evidence did not have to show that Dixon was in Lubbock at all, much less on a particular day,” Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote in a 15-page order.
She added, “And in fact, the evidence showed that Dixon was not in Lubbock on the day of the murder. His presence in Lubbock on some other day months before, even coupled with Shepard’s presence and their conversation, was not particularly important to this prosecution.”
Keller found there was ample evidence Shepard and Dixon were working together from the 51 pages of Shepard’s properly admitted cellphone records, which showed they exchanged hundreds of text messages in the months before the murder, some of them about Sonnier, and 41 text messages the day of the murder.
“The day before the murder, Shepard texted, ‘Perfect day to travel to hub city’ and Dixon responded, ‘Need it done ASAP,’” the order states. Hub City is a nickname for Lubbock.
Also working against Dixon, Keller found, was his statement on the witness stand that he must have traveled to Lubbock on March 12, 2012, because the cellphone records showed he did, as well as a receipt showing he had bought gas at a station in nearby Plainview that day.
“The shortest route from Amarillo to Lubbock goes straight through Plainview, so this evidence suggested that Dixon was traveling between Amarillo and Lubbock on March 12,” Keller wrote.
The Court of Criminal Appeals also struck down the 7th Court of Appeals finding that Dixon had been deprived of his right to a public trial.
The trial judge had told bailiffs not to let people enter the crowded courtroom during closing arguments of Dixon’s trial because he did not want anyone standing, and Dixon’s defense argued that violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.
Keller made short work of that argument Wednesday.
“The exclusion of spectators from the courtroom because the courtroom is full is not by itself a violation of the right to a public trial,” she wrote.
Dixon raised 50 issues in his appeal. Keller said her order only addressed some of them and remanded the case for the 7th Court of Appeals to work through the rest.
Dixon’s attorney’s Cynthia Orr and Gerald Goldstein, partners in a San Antonio firm, said a gag order prevented them from commenting on the ruling.
The Lubbock County District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond Wednesday afternoon to a phone message seeking comment.