Arizona has carried out most of the killings by injection since 1992. However, defendants who committed crimes prior to that date, including Frank Atwood and Clarence Dixon, have a choice between lethal injection or the gas chamber. (Courtesy photo of the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry)
WASHINGTON – While Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich is pushing for executions to be planned for two death row inmates who he said have exhausted their appeals, attorneys for the men said they still intend to fight.
Brnovich said Tuesday he plans to obtain execution warrants for Clarence Dixon, who was convicted of murdering a college student in Tempe in 1978, and Frank Atwood, who was convicted of murdering a 9-year-old girl in Tucson in 1984.
However, the men’s attorneys said there are outstanding legal issues that need to be resolved and that their appeals have been “frustrated” by the COVID-19 pandemic since last year.
“The state is now trying to set aside the most profound problems that can arise in our legal system, including the question of whether the convict is actually guilty of the crime and whether death in the individual case is a morally or legally justifiable punishment,” Joseph Perkovich, an attorney for Atwood, said in a statement Tuesday.
If the men are executed, these will be the first executions in Arizona since 2014, when the botched, lethal injection execution of Joseph Wood lasted two hours.
Since their crimes were committed prior to 1992, both Atwood and Dixon have a choice of lethal injection or execution in the gas chamber. If they don’t choose, the state would use a lethal injection of pentobarbital.
According to the schedule proposed to the Brnovich court, the executions could take place in just two months. However, a lawyer said the cases were in “uncharted waters”.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, admitted that the state “has a legitimate interest in not pulling a case” but said that does not mean that it should hasten an execution.
“What we have here is the attorney general trying to hasten executions in two cases where there are serious doubts about the constitutionality of their conduct,” Dunham said on Wednesday.
According to Brnovich’s office, there are 115 inmates on Arizona’s death row, 20 of whom have all used up their appeals. In his petitions, Brnovich said the law requires the Arizona Supreme Court to issue an enforcement warrant once a post-conviction review is completed.
“The death penalty is Arizona law and the appropriate response to those who commit the most shocking and heinous murders,” Brnovich’s statement said Tuesday. “This is about the administration of justice and ensuring that the last word still belongs to the innocent victims who can no longer speak for themselves.”
Atwood was on parole on a conviction in California for indecent and lascivious acts and kidnapping an 8-year-old boy when he broke his parole and went to Tucson in May 1984. In September of that year, he abducted 8-year-old boys. Old Vicki Lynne Hoskinson in Tucson rode home after sending her aunt a birthday card.
Atwood killed her and left her body in the desert before escaping to Texas, where he was later arrested. In April 1985, a hiker found the girl’s body. Atwood was convicted of the murder and kidnapping of Vicki and sentenced to death in 1987.
Dixon was serving a life sentence on another charge when DNA evidence linked him to the previously unsolved murder of an Arizona State University student in 1978.
Deana Bowdoin, 21, was found raped and stabbed to death in her Tempe apartment on January 7, 1978, but police could not find her killer. The case went cold for about 20 years before a Tempe police officer used DNA profiles to identify Dixon as a suspect.
Dixon had been sentenced to life for kidnapping and sexual assault in Coconino County in 1985 when he was linked to Bowdoin’s death. He was charged in 2002 and sentenced to death in January 2008 – just over 30 years after Bowdoin’s death.
Eighteen anti-death penalty organizations in Arizona wrote to Governor Doug Ducey Wednesday urging him not to resume executions in the state. The letter cited racial differences in the imposition of the death penalty, its use against defendants with mental retardation, and the fact that 10 Arizona death row inmates were later exonerated.
The letter also said the state “botched” its most recent executions, including the execution of Wood seven years ago. Prison officials had to administer 15 doses of the deadly two-drug cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone over a period of about two hours before he was pronounced dead.
Wood’s execution sparked a lawsuit that resulted in changes in the way inmates are killed. These changes include an open microphone for the witness chamber – critics said witnesses could not hear what appeared to be Woods choking and gasping during his execution.
Brnovich also noted Tuesday that the state has found a supplier for pentobarbital and a pharmacist who will convert the solid drug into a liquid for injection. Both names are kept confidential by the state to protect them from harassment.
Dale Baich, assistant federal defender for Arizona, said the future of the two death row inmates was “a little uncertain”.
“We are in uncharted waters, so to speak,” he said. “This is the first time the Attorney General has asked the court to set a timeline for disclosure when an arrest warrant has been requested.”
Dunham said the state should never be in a rush to be executed.
“Arizona should not seek to hasten executions for the political gain of the attorney general at the expense of the possible killing of an innocent man,” he said. “The main concern should be to make sure there is a fair trial in this case.”