Arizona Executes a Blind, Disabled Man Previously Found Legally Insane

Updated 05.11.22

Arizona executed Clarence Dixon, 66, today, even though he was blind, physically frail, and had a documented history of severe mental illness. He was also a member of the Navajo Nation, which opposes the death penalty on cultural and religious grounds.

Mr. Dixon was sentenced to death in 2008 for a killing that happened 30 years earlier, while civil commitment proceedings were pending.

In 1977, Mr. Dixon was charged with assault for hitting a stranger with a metal pipe. He was diagnosed with severe depression and schizophrenia, adjudicated incompetent to stand trial, and sent to a state hospital for treatment, Slate reports. One of his doctors wrote, “I have a strong feeling that without presence of the mental disturbance, the act of violence would not have taken place.”

In January 1978, Mr. Dixon was found not guilty by reason of insanity by then-Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sandra Day O’Connor, who ordered prosecutors to keep him in custody until civil commitment proceedings could begin within 10 days, DPIC reports. Instead, he was released without any supervision or treatment.

Two days later, a college student was raped and murdered. In 2001, DNA testing linked Mr. Dixon to the crime and he was charged with capital murder. Mr. Dixon was allowed to fire his court-appointed lawyers and represent himself at his trial in 2008. His defense was based on his delusional belief that a government conspiracy was behind the charges. He was convicted and sentenced to death, and DPIC reports, he has continued to file numerous lawsuits and motions arguing this conspiracy theory.

Mr. Dixon’s jury never learned that he was legally insane at the time of the crime or about his lifelong history of severe mental illness, which started with severe depression and suicidal ideations as a young child, his legal team said.

Jurors likewise did not know that Clarence Dixon “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,” advocates reported. “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.”

On April 8, Mr. Dixon’s lawyers filed a motion to stay his execution, arguing that he does not rationally understand the reason for his execution and therefore is incompetent to be executed under the Constitution. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich urged the court not to hold a competency hearing because it could delay Mr. Dixon’s scheduled execution.

The trial court held a hearing on May 3, where Mr. Dixon’s lawyers presented evidence of his schizophrenia and his documented history of delusions, auditory and visual hallucinations, and paranoid ideation. As DPIC reports, an experienced psychiatrist who had interviewed Mr. Dixon in person multiple times over the last 11 years testified that Mr. Dixon had schizophrenia, was delusional and irrational, and believed he was being executed because of a government conspiracy.

Prosecutors presented testimony from a former clinical psychologist who had never evaluated a person’s competency to be executed, never diagnosed or treated someone with schizophrenia, and never met Mr. Dixon in person. After speaking with Mr. Dixon by video for 70 minutes, he testified that he had deluded beliefs but was not delusional or incompetent to be executed, DPIC reports.

The court issued its opinion the same day, finding that Mr. Dixon “has a mental disorder or mental illness of schizophrenia” but that his mental state was not “so distorted by this mental illness that he lacks a rational understanding of the State’s rationale for his execution.”

Mr. Dixon’s attorneys appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, which denied review on Monday, and federal courts refused to stay the execution.

Arizona’s last execution was nearly eight years ago, when it killed Joseph Wood using a secret experimental drug protocol that took more than two hours. Witnesses reported that Mr. Wood gasped and snorted more than 600 times after being injected with 15 doses of midazolam and hydromorphone.

A 2017 settlement over Arizona’s lethal injection protocol bars prison staff from using expired chemicals in an execution, the AP explained. On Saturday, a federal judge declined to stay Mr. Dixon’s execution after prosecutors said the compounded sodium pentobarbital they plan to use would not expire until August.

Mr. Dixon’s attorneys argued that the drug actually expired in April. The judge scheduled a hearing on Monday to consider those arguments, according to Fox10 Phoenix. After the State agreed to compound a new batch of pentobarbital, Mr. Dixon’s lawyers agreed that settled their claims.

“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,” Mr. Dixon’s attorney, Jennifer Moreno, said. “Under these circumstances, the execution of Mr. Dixon—a severely mentally ill, visually disabled, and physically frail member of the Navajo Nation—is unconscionable.”

Media witnesses to today’s execution reported that Mr. Dixon appeared to be in pain as prison staff struggled for 25 minutes to place the IV, which they put in his groin. “I did see what appeared to be some cutting into the groin, they did have to wipe up a fair amount of blood,” said Paul Davenport, a media witness for the Associated Press.