Decades on death row: Taking a closer look at an Arizona murder case and the family the victim left behind

There are currently 20 inmates on Arizona’s death row that have exhausted all of their appeals and are ready to have their sentences imposed.

Two of them have been singled out by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich to be the first executed. Frank Atwood and Clarence Dixon are murderers who committed their crimes more than 30 years ago.

We’re taking a closer look at Dixon's case, and more importantly, that of his victim, Deana Bowdoin and the family she left behind in 1978.

"When I come out here.. it really gives me a sense of peace and calm and I don’t think about the circumstances."

When Leslie Bowdoin James visits the cemetery, she tries to think of her sister Deana as she knew her.

Deana was a 21-year-old senior at Arizona State University. She full of life, already a world traveler, popular, and friendly. She had just returned from a night out with friends when Clarence Dixon, a stranger — a man who had been convicted of previous sex crimes — broke into her apartment, raped, and murdered her.

That was 43 years ago.

Dixon got the death penalty for the crime. He’s been on death row for decades, yet he is still alive.

He’s now one of two men who could soon get the ultimate punishment if and when Arizona resumes executions and it could happen in just months.

"I’ve waited for this for a long time. I believe that there will be some finality. I don’t like to use the word closure.. you’re never going to change the fact that Deana’s gone. But.. the whole process, and always having it being in the back of your mind.. I’ll be done.. I’m ready to be done," said Leslie.

Deana Bowdoin

"You have an ASU coed who was eight hours short of graduation.. and was brutally raped.. and killed in her own bed by some guy who has been to prison two other times for raping other women. We shouldn’t feel sorry for these defendants," said Brnovich, who is pushing for the resumption of executions here in Arizona.

The last one the state carried out was in 2014.

We visited the death chamber at Florence prison just before that execution was carried out. The first news crew allowed inside in decades. We were also the only TV crew allowed to tour the new open death row housing unit at Florence prison where death row inmates are now allowed to play board games and basketball together, all while waiting for their sentence to be carried out.

Why did the executions stop? 

The big problem is getting the drugs that are used for lethal injections.

Because of protests and lawsuits, the companies that made reliable death penalty drugs stopped selling them to prisons, which forced states to rely on drugs that weren’t as proven with sometimes uneven results — but that’s changing here in Arizona.

In a document obtained by FOX 10, it shows that in late 2020, the Arizona Department of Corrections paid $1.5 million for about 100 doses of precursors of the most reliable death penalty drug, Pentobarbital. It’s the same drug many veterinarians use to put pets to sleep.

And the DOC will hire a pharmacist to make or compound, as it’s called, those precursors into effective Pentobarbital that can be used on inmates.

Who is the pharmacist? Where did the precursors come from? That’s being kept secret for now and it’s something death penalty opponents question.

"If the state is going to be in the business of carrying out executions, it needs to be fully transparent," said Dale Baisch, who represents Deana’s killer.

Clarence Dixon

Clarence Dixon (Arizona Department of Corrections)

Baisch says Dixon shouldn’t be executed because he’s mentally ill and he wants more information on these new compounded drugs.

"What we’re trying to do through the litigation is to make sure if the execution does go forward, that we don’t have another botched situation like we had in 2014."

That last execution was Joseph Wood, a man who killed his estranged girlfriend and her father at a Tucson auto body shop back in 1989. 

joseph wood

It took nearly two hours for Joseph Wood to die after he was given 15 doses of the sedative midazolam and a painkiller. (file) (Arizona Department of Corrections)

The Department of Corrections used a brand new drug protocol on Wood, and I witnessed the execution firsthand. Wood moved on the table and appeared to gulp for air for almost two hours, even though he got 15 lethal doses of that drug protocol.

The attorney general says we’re worrying about the wrong things.

"There’s always this focus on oh, the defendants and whether they feel pain or suffering, and yet no one talks about.. what about the victims? You mentioned the last execution, I mean that defendant had brutally killed someone’s father right in front of her.. there was no doubt as to his guilt or innocence. He was a degenerate killer. He didn’t give anyone a chance.

He wasn’t worried about how long someone was going to breathe or live."

As for the other 18 or 19 men on death row who now have exhausted all their appeals? If these two executions move forward, Brnovich says the door will be open and many more executions should follow.

"We are going to do everything we can, as long as I’m AG ,that every single one of those individuals who’ve exhausted their appeals.. we’ll do everything we can to make sure they’re executed."

Leslie says she doesn’t know yet whether she wants to witness the execution of her sister’s killer, but she is ready for this ordeal to come to an end.

"Even the victim’s bill of rights says crime victims have the right to a conclusion. It is never the same until there’s that conclusion. This is the closest we’ve ever been, so yeah.. I think we will."

We will stay in touch with Leslie through this process as she seeks justice.

What happens next?

Brnovich has asked the Arizona Supreme Court to schedule a conference on the case. There’s no concrete word on exactly when that is going to happen, but when it does, it sets in motion the signing of Dixon’s death warrant. Once signed, Dixon will be put to death in 35 days.

On May 21, 2021, FOX 10 has learned that the Arizona Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing for Dixon's execution warrant. The hearing is set to take place on Sept. 14.

Online: List of Arizona death row inmates

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