DA: Appeals court gave 'total deference' to Dixon's version of t - FOX34 Lubbock

DA: Appeals court gave 'total deference' to Dixon's version of trial, set 'impossible standard' for prosecutors

AUSTIN, Texas -

The 7th Court of Appeals in Amarillo didn't review the evidence of Thomas Michael Dixon's appeal in a neutral light, yielded to Dixon's version of events, and misstated and mischaracterized the State's use of evidence when considering his capital murder appeal, according to Lubbock County District Attorney Sunshine Stanek. 

Her office filed its brief in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Tuesday, the highest criminal appeals court in the state. Stanek's office is appealing the decision from the 7th Court that vacated Dixon's capital murder convictions that showed he paid a man to kill a romantic rival in 2012.

Dixon's attorneys told the appellate panel Lubbock District Judge Jim Bob Darnell violated Dixon's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial by illegally closing public access to Dixon's trial on three separate occasions. Attorneys also argued prosecutors relied on cell phone location data to convict Dixon; that type of data gathering was rendered illegal by the Supreme Court after DIxon's conviction in November 2015.

Stanek's office is asking the CCA to reverse the 7th Court's ruling and reinstate Dixon's convictions for capital murder, sending him back to prison for life without parole. He's been out of jail since January after posting a $2 million bond.

Cell phone data

Stanek's brief to the Court of Criminal Appeals argues the 7th Court assigned more value to the cell phone data than it provided in Dixon's murder trial; she claims the cell phone data did not convict Dixon beyond a reasonable doubt as it was "a minute portion of the evidence showing [Dixon]'s guilt, and it was cumulative of other evidence proving the same facts."

During Dixon's trial, Stanek reports the jury spent 16 days hearing from more than 50 witnesses and viewing more than 1,900 exhibits. Stanek claims the CSLI data formed "a fraction of one exhibit that only one of the fifty witnesses at trial testified about."  Nevertheless her brief claims the 7th Court construed the CSLI data as "a large part" of the state's argument against Dixon.

Stanek's brief argues Dixon's physical location at the time the data was gathered wasn't critical to any element of the actual offense; the 7th Court's opinion indicated the jury could have seen the location data as convicting evidence of Dixon's part in the murder. Stanek writes the panel's analysis "overlooks the volumes of evidence implicating [Dixon] as a party to the offense."

Right to a fair and public trial

Dixon's appellate attorneys argue Judge Darnell originally excluded a sketch artist from the courtroom during jury selection in his murder trial, citing this as the first instance of having an unconstitutionally closed trial proceeding. Stanek's brief claims Dixon didn't object to the exclusion of the sketch artist until the next day -- when the Court had already invited the sketch artist to view the rest of the jury selection. Stanek claims this shows Dixon's attorneys didn't raise Sixth Amendment concerns in a timely fashion.

Secondly, Dixon objected to the exclusion of spectators during closing arguments. The objection was stated in a motion for new trial filed weeks after Dixon's conviction. Stanek argues this shows his request isn't timely, since the objection should have been made when Dixon or his attorneys first noticed the exclusion. Stanek argues, without timely notice, there's no way a trial court can reasonably accommodate a fix except for a costly appeal or a new trial.

Third, Dixon's attorneys argued Judge Darnell partially -- and illegally -- excluded members of the public from the trial. Stanek's brief shows Judge Darnell excluded spectators during an attorney admonishment -- but some members of the public remained in the courtroom -- and implemented a "one in, one out" rule during the packed house of closing statements.

The 7th Court of Appeals, Stanek writes, found it didn't need to consider whether a substantial reason supported the exclusion of the public, as the state requested. The panel found Judge Darnell had no adequate reason to close the courtroom at any time. 

Stanek points out Dixon's trial was in the largest courtroom Lubbock County has, and during closing arguments it was at full capacity.


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