Arizona Sets Date for First Execution in Eight Years

The Arizona Department of Corrections in Phoenix.
The Arizona Department of Corrections in Phoenix. Matthew Hendley
Arizona has set a date for the execution of Clarence Dixon, state Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced Tuesday.

If the execution goes forward as intended on May 11, it will be the first time Arizona has put a man to death in the eight years since the botched execution of Joseph Wood.

Dixon was convicted in 2002 of sexually assaulting and murdering Deana Bowdoin, a 21-year-old Arizona State University student. The crime had occurred more than two decades earlier, in 1978, and gone unsolved for years. A DNA match eventually led investigators to charge Dixon with the crime.

At the time, he already was serving life in prison for raping another woman. Jurors handed down a death sentence in the murder case.

But Dixon also has a long history of serious mental illness and health conditions, which his attorneys have argued should spare him from the death penalty.

A member of the Navajo Nation, Dixon grew up on the reservation, suffering abuse as a child. He had a heart condition at birth and now is blind. His attorneys did not immediately return Phoenix New Times' inquiries Wednesday, but told press that under these circumstances, Dixon's execution would be "unconscionable."

Furthermore, the Navajo Nation opposes the use of the death penalty, and has historically fought against capital punishment for its citizens. In this case, though, the tribe has little legal sway, given that the crime did not occur on tribal land.

Brnovich has been trying to set an execution date for Dixon for more than a year. The attorney general has promised to bring the death penalty back to Arizona during his time in office, though so far has been unsuccessful.

This week's announcement fulfills one of Brnovich's central campaign pledges when he ran for office.

The 2014 execution of Wood sparked a wave of litigation over Arizona's execution protocols, forcing the state to suspend capital punishment.

Wood's death was gruesome: The man, convicted of murdering his former girlfriend and her father, lay on the gurney alive for two hours as he was injected with lethal drugs. During the course of the execution, he was injected 15 times.

Ultimately, the state was forced to adopt a new, "one-drug" policy to use either pentobarbital or sodium thiopental in executions. But it took until 2019 for the state to figure out a way to obtain pentobarbital.

Lethal injection drugs are notoriously difficult to obtain. Some states have been accused of orchestrating secretive cash exchanges for them in parking lots, according to an investigation into Idaho's procurement of the drugs. In Arizona, the Department of Corrections still refuses to identify its pentobarbital supplier.

Last May, the Arizona Supreme Court allowed Brnovich to go forward with a briefing schedule for the executions of Dixon and another prisoner, Frank Atwood. This move signaled that a death warrant was imminent.

But concerns quickly emerged that the Department of Corrections had not correctly calculated the expiration date of the pentobarbital it planned to use to execute the two men. The state conceded that, indeed, the drug would expire in half the time that it had originally thought — making its timeline for the executions impossible.

Now, with a warrant in hand, the state of Arizona is closer to an execution than it has been in years. "I made a promise to Arizona voters that people who commit the ultimate crime get the ultimate punishment," Brnovich wrote in the announcement.

In most death penalty cases, however, legal challenges often continue up until the date of the execution. Dixon now has just 35 days.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk