What led up to Arizona’s first scheduled execution since 2014

Dixon is set to be put to death on May 11.
Dixon is set to be put to death on May 11.(Arizona's Family)
Published: May. 10, 2022 at 7:14 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — It’s something Arizona hasn’t seen in nearly eight years: the execution of a prisoner. Clarence Dixon is scheduled to be put to death on Wednesday morning at the state prison in Florence. Here’s how we got here:

His crime

On Jan. 7, 1978, Deana Bowdoin, a 21-year-old ASU student, was raped, strangled, and stabbed to death in her Tempe apartment. The case went cold until 20 years later when a Tempe detective re-opened Bowdoin’s case. Using DNA profiling, detectives were able to pinpoint Dixon as the suspect, who was already serving a life sentence for a 1986 sexual assault conviction. In 2002, Dixon was indicted for Bowdoin’s rape and murder, but the rape charge had to be dropped due to a statute of limitations. A jury found him guilty in 2008 of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to death.

Recent Arizona history of executions

Since 1992, there were regularly scheduled executions in the Grand Canyon State. 1992 is also when Arizona voters approved death by lethal injection for those on death row, not just by gas chamber. The last prisoner executed by lethal gas was Walter B. LaGrand on March 3, 1999, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry’s website. There was a pause between 2000 and 2007 when the U.S. Supreme Court rule a jury must decide on aggravating factors for the death penalty, instead of a judge making the decision. Because of the decision, 27 Arizona capital cases had to go back to prosecutors.

The “botched” execution

So why haven’t there been any executions in Arizona since 2014? Because of what happened to Joseph Rudolph Wood III. He was convicted of shooting his estranged girlfriend and her father in 1989. On July 23, 2014, he was given 15 doses of a two-drug combination over two hours. His lawyers said he started to breathe five minutes after the execution proceeding began and was still alive about 90 minutes in. One reporter who witnessed the execution said Wood gulped more than 600 times. Normally death by lethal injection should take between seven and 10 minutes. Wood’s lawyers said the execution was “botched” and he was convulsing for the last 25 minutes. It reignited the debate over the death penalty and sparked then-Gov. Jan Brewer to call for a review of the state’s execution procedures. A temporary banned ensued.

Reviving executions in Arizona

Lawsuits lasted for years over the state’s lethal injection protocol and drugs themselves. In 2015, Arizona tried to illegally import an anesthetic that has been used to carry out executions but is no longer manufactured by companies approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The state never obtained the shipment because federal agents stopped it at the Phoenix airport. Arizona struggled to buy execution drugs after U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies began blocking the use of their products in lethal injections.

In 2019, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich sent a letter to Gov. Doug Ducey saying he wanted to resume executions after the federal government announced it would start executing federal prisoners. A year later, a lawsuit was settled over the state’s lethal injection procedures. Companies that supply the drugs remain confidential and microphones will remain on in the execution chamber during executions.

Arizona also found a pharmacist to prepare the lethal injections in October 2020 and in the spring of 2021, the state found obtained a shipment of pentobarbital. Also in 2020, Arizona refurbished its gas chamber for killing death row inmates using hydrogen cyanide, the same gas the Nazis used to millions of Jewish people. Dying by lethal gas is now an option for Arizona prisoners and it’s the only working gas chamber in the nation.

In April 2021, Brnovich sought two execution warrants for Dixon and another death row inmate, Frank Atwood. The Arizona Supreme Court issued an execution warrant for Dixon on April 5 and issued an execution warrant for Atwood on May 3. Dixon declined to pick a method of execution so the default is by lethal injection. The execution proceedings for Dixon are set to start at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.