Lubbock prosecutors appeal to Texas high court to restore Dr. Dixon’s conviction

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Thomas Michael Dixon

LUBBOCK, and AUSTIN, Texas — On Tuesday, prosecutors filed an appellate brief before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals which is the state’s highest court for criminal proceedings.  The brief said Dr. Thomas Michael Dixon was properly convicted of capital murder in Lubbock and should serve a life sentence without parole.

“Joseph Sonnier was found brutally murdered in his [Lubbock] home on July 11, 2012—the result of a love triangle turned murder for hire plot,” prosecutors with the Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney said in the brief.  

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Joseph Sonnier

A jury found that Dixon paid David Shepard to commit the crime of stabbing and shooting Dr. Sonnier to death.

“David Shepard, the gunman, pleaded guilty to the offense of capital murder and received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” court records said.

The Seventh Court of Appeals in Amarillo reversed Dixon’s conviction in December 2018 for two reasons.  

RELATED STORY: Dr. Dixon released from Lubbock Co. Detention Center

The appeals court said a magistrate’s order for phone records was not enough and prosecutors should have obtained an actual search warrant. The appeals court also said “the trial court violated [Dixon’s] Sixth Amendment right to public trial” by partially closing off public access on a couple of occasions.

At the time that prosecutors used a court order instead of a full search warrant for phone records, it was permissible under the law.  But after Dixon’s conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a search warrant was needed in such cases.

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David Shepard

Prosecutors argue that the cell phone records were only used to impeach Dixon’s credibility which had already been damaged.  Prosecutors said in the brief that the records had no impact on the final guilty verdict and therefore the conviction should go back on the record.

 As for the issue of a public trial, prosecutors said there were three incidents – none of which violated Dixon’s Sixth Amendment right.

RELATED STORY: Dr. Dixon case will go to the state’s highest criminal court

A courtroom sketch artist was temporarily not allowed into the courtroom because it was full.  When the judge found out, he ordered the room be made for the sketch artist in the jury box.

Members of the public were asked to leave the courtroom for a short period of time while the judge admonished attorneys.  Prosecutors said no evidence was presented or testimony.  It was only the judge telling attorneys they need to behave better.

And at times the courtroom was so full that there was a “one-in one-out” rule meaning no one else could come in until someone left. The appeals court said these partial closures of a public trial were not justified.

Prosecutors wrote in part to the high court: 

The opinion leaves one wondering what a trial court is supposed to do, having already moved the trial to the largest courtroom in the courthouse and still unable to accommodate all of the potential spectators. Is a packed courtroom not public? Should trial courts statewide now have to consider renting out auditoriums or stadiums for trial proceedings lest not one potential spectator be excluded? What about highly publicized trials in small counties far less equipped than Lubbock County to seat hundreds of people, press, and supporters? How should those counties reconcile the court of appeals opinion with a courtroom that seats only a few dozen people? This Court should correct the court of appeals reasoning and apply the realistic, common-sense approach to the Sixth Amendment analysis applied by the rest of the country.

Dixon’s attorneys still have the chance to file their side of the story to Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.  Dixon is currently free on a $2 million bond while his conviction is set aside. 

RELATED STORY: Prosecutors seek to restore Dr. Dixon’s conviction

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