Arizona is finally ready to carry out its first two executions in seven years.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed the necessary paperwork Tuesday with the Arizona Supreme Court to have the state put to death Frank Atwood Jr. and Clarence Dixon.
Aide Ryan Anderson said there are still a few steps the court has to take. And then there’s the question of actually setting a date.
But Anderson said there is no reason why both cannot be executed before the end of the year.
There is one thing that has to be decided: the manner of death.
Arizona now uses lethal chemicals to execute inmates after it took 11 minutes for Donald Eugene Harding to die in 1992 by asphyxiation. Voters agreed later that year to replace the gas chamber with lethal injection.
But that law allows any inmate whose crime was committed before Nov. 23, 1992 to choose. In fact, Walter LeGrand was executed in the gas chamber in 1999 at his request and is believed to be the last person in this country put to death by that method.
A representative from the state Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry said Tuesday that the gas chamber is “fully operational.”
Brnovich on Tuesday asked the Arizona Supreme Court, which has the last word, to set up a briefing schedule to review the request for death warrants to be issued. But in his legal filings, the attorney general said there’s really nothing left to discuss.
He said the justices need to determine if all of the appeals and post-conviction proceedings have been concluded.
“If those proceedings have terminated, as the state will show, the relevant statute and procedural rule, respectfully, leave this court no discretion to deny the warrant,” Brnovich told the justices.
And there are other complicating factors if either Atwood or Dixon choose lethal injection.
One is that the pentobarbital, the barbiturate the state plans to use, has to be compounded. And once that happens it has a shelf-life of 90 days. So that, Brnovich said, requires the dates to all line up so that the executions, once set, can be completed in that time period.
If these two go forward, it would break the logjam.
Brnovich said there are 115 inmates on Arizona’s “death row,” with about 20 of them, including Atwood and Dixon, having exhausted their appeals. The attorney general, in a prepared statement, made it clear that he considers the renewal of executions to be proper.
“Capital punishment is the law in Arizona and the appropriate response to those who commit the most shocking and vile murders,” he said.
In fact, in Arizona, the death penalty is not an option simply because someone murdered another person. Instead, it takes a jury concluding there were sufficient “aggravating circumstances” like whether the crime was done for money, whether the person was out on parole, and whether it was committed “in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner.”
“This is about the administration of justice and ensuring the last word still belongs to the innocent victims who can no longer speak for themselves,” Brnovich said.
Atwood, a previously convicted pedophile, was convicted for the 1984 death of 8-year-old Vicki Lynne Hoskinson. She disappeared in 1984 while riding her pink bicycle at on her way to mail a letter for her mother.
Authorities eventually tracked Atwood to Texas where he was arrested on charges of kidnapping, with murder charges added after Vicki’s skull and some bones were found in the desert northwest of Tucson the following year.
At trial, witnesses for the state testified that pink paint on the front bumper of Atwood’s car had come “from the victim’s bike or from another source exactly like the bike” and that Vicki’s bicycle had nickel particles on it that were consistent with metal from the bumper.
In seeking to overturn his conviction, Atwood argued that his trial counsel was ineffective. But Judge Sandra Ikuta, writing for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, said there were legitimate reasons for decisions made by attorney Stanton Bloom in how to conduct the defense.
And the judges said, in essence, Atwood’s theory that police and prosecutors planted evidence was so far-fetched as to have no credibility.
Dixon was found guilty of murdering Deana Bowdoin, an Arizona State University student, in 1978. She was found murdered in her bed with a macrame belt around her neck and blood on her chest.
While police found DNA they were unable to match it to anyone.
The break came in 2001 when Tempe police matched it to Dixon who by that time was serving a life sentence in prison for a 1986 rape. Dixon had lived across the street from Bowdoin at the time of the murder.
Dale Baich, a federal defender who represented Dixon in post-conviction proceedings, said corrections officials have yet to respond to questions about the process, including Covid safety measures and whether spiritual advisers will be allowed in the execution chamber.
He called the decision to execute him”unconscionable,” and not only because of Dixon’s mental condition. Baich cited statistics he said show that the death penalty is disproportionately imposed on poor people and people of color and is more likely to be imposed in Maricopa County.
It has taken years to determine when Arizona would again start executing inmates.
It started with questions of whether the state could — or would — get the necessary drugs for executions. And it took a court ruling to conclude that the public has no right to know where the state obtains the chemicals.
The state then tried to obtain sodium thiopental, a muscle relaxant. When the manufacturer would not sell the drug to Arizona to put someone to death, the state then ordered them from a suppliers in India despite warnings by the federal Food and Drug Administration that such a move was illegal.
The drugs were seized at Sky Harbor Airport and never released.
In the interim, the federal government managed to get its hands on pentobarbital and last year carried out its first executions in years. That led Brnovich to pressure Gov. Doug Ducey to either have his corrections department get the drugs or at least ask for the attorney general’s help in getting them.
It has taken until now for Arizona to get the drugs it needs.
All along, Hoskinson’s mother, Debbie Carlson, has been pushing Ducey to actively pursue the drugs to ensure that Atwood is put to death.
“I would like to thank Attorney General Mark Brnovich for standing with us in our quest for justice,” she wrote in a 2019 opinion piece in The Arizona Republic. “
It is now my hope that Gov. Ducey will hear our plea and direct the Department of Corrections to procure the drugs to execute the perpetrator.”