A Navajo man was executed in Arizona on Wednesday.
Clarence Dixon, 66, was convicted of killing a college student in 1978 and is the first person to be executed in the state after a nearly eight-year hiatus in its use of the death penalty.
Dixon was killed by lethal injection Wednesday morning at the state prison in Florence for his murder conviction in the killing of 21-year-old Arizona State University student Deana Bowdoin. According to AP, he is the sixth inmate to be put to death in the United States this year.
The last Native to be executed was Lezmond Mitchell, also Navajo, in 2020. The Navajo Nation has historically opposed the death penalty and spoke out against Mitchell’s execution in 2020.
At that time, according to the Navajo Times, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the tribe did not expect the federal government to understand the Navajo people’s customs and traditions of hózhǫ and k’é.
“We don’t expect federal officials to understand our strongly held traditions of clan relationship, keeping harmony in our communities, and holding life sacred,” Nez said in a statement. “What we do expect, no, what we demand, is respect for our people, for our tribal Nation, and we will not be pushed aside any longer.”
In Dixon’s case, Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen McPaul wrote a letter explaining the tribe’s opposition to the death penalty in 2021. The letter came two months after Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed a notice of intent seeking a warrant of execution.
Two weeks after McPaul’s letter, Brnovich sought to expedite Dixon’s execution but the Arizona Supreme Court denied his request to speed up the execution.
In recent weeks, Dixon’s lawyers have made arguments to the courts to postpone his execution, but judges had so far rejected his argument that he is mentally unfit to be executed and had no rational understanding of why the state wanted to put him to death. Late Tuesday night, Dixon’s lawyers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review lower-court decisions that denied his request to postpone the execution.
Dixon declined the option of being executed by the gas chamber — a method that hasn’t been used in the United States in more than two decades — after Arizona refurbished its gas chamber in late 2020. Instead, the state executed him with an injection of pentobarbital.
The state’s hiatus in executions was driven by an execution that critics say was botched and the difficulty of finding lethal injection drugs.
The last time Arizona used the death penalty was in July 2014, when Joseph Wood was given 15 doses of a two-drug combination over two hours. Wood gasped more than 600 times before he died.
States including Arizona had struggled to buy execution drugs in recent years after U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies began blocking the use of their products in lethal injections. Authorities have said Bowdoin, who was found dead in her apartment in Tempe, had been raped, stabbed and strangled with a belt.
Dixon, who was an ASU student at the time and lived across the street from Bowdoin, had been charged with raping Bowdoin, but the charge was later dropped on statute-of-limitation grounds. He was convicted, however,, in her death.
In arguing their client was mentally unfit, Dixon’s lawyers have said he erroneously believes he will be executed because police at Northern Arizona University wrongfully arrested him in another case — a 1985 attack on a 21-year-old student. His attorneys concede he was in fact lawfully arrested by Flagstaff police.
Dixon was sentenced to life sentences in that case for sexual assault and other convictions. DNA samples taken while he was in prison later linked him to Bowdoin’s killing, which at that point had been unsolved.
According to the Navajo Times, previously an Arizona court determined that Dixon was mentally incompetent and legally insane and that he has a documented history of delusions, auditory and visual hallucinations, and paranoid ideations.
In Dixon’s court filings he claimed his DNA was illegally collected by the NAU police, resulting in consecutive terms of life and the death penalty. “He ultimately believes that he will be executed because the NAU police wrongfully arrested him in 1985. The judicial system – and actors in it, including his own lawyers – have conspired to cover up that fact,” the motion read. “It would offend humanity to execute Mr. Dixon.”
Mitchell took issue with the proceedings in his case as well. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied his attempts to prove racial bias in the case.
Prosecutors said there was nothing about Dixon’s beliefs that prevented him from understanding the reason for the execution and pointed to court filings that Dixon himself made over the years.
Defense lawyers have said Dixon has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia on multiple occasions, has regularly experienced hallucinations over the past 30 years and was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a 1977 assault case in which the verdict was delivered by then-Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sandra Day O’Connor, nearly four years before her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to the Navajo Times report, in 1977 O’Connor appointed a psychiatrist to interview Dixon after he assaulted a 15 year-old. He hit the girl over the head with a metal pipe after he said, “Nice evening, isn’t it?”. The psychiatrist deemed him not competent to stand trial and O’Connor found him not guilty by reason of insanity but two days before he was placed in a state hospital to receive treatment for his mental illness he raped and murdered Bowdoin.
Another Arizona death-row prisoner, Frank Atwood, is scheduled to be executed June 8 in the killing of 8-year-old Vicki Lynne Hoskinson in 1984. Authorities say Atwood kidnapped the girl, whose body was found in the desert northwest of Tucson.
Arizona has 113 prisoners on death row.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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