Appeals court upholds Thomas Dixon's life sentence

  • In US
  • 2022-01-14 21:25:04Z
  • By Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

Appellate court justices in Amarillo on Thursday upheld the conviction and life sentence of Thomas Michael Dixon after rejecting the remaining 49 counts of his direct appeal.

Dixon can appeal the ruling to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest court in the state on criminal issues. If that appeal fails, he also has the option to take it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A Lubbock jury on Nov. 18, 2015 convicted Dixon, a once-prominent Amarillo plastic surgeon, of two counts of capital murder in the July 10, 2012, shooting death of Dr. Joseph Sonnier, the chief pathologist of Covenant Medical Center. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Prosecutors said Dixon paid three, 100 oz. silver bars and two Cuban Cigars to his business partner, David Neal Shepard, to kill Sonnier, who was dating Dixon's ex-girlfriend at the time.

Shepard pleaded guilty to his role as Sonnier's killer and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

After his conviction, Dixon filed an appeal citing 50 instances his attorneys believed were a violation of his right to a fair trial.

The justices in the Court of Appeals in the Seventh District of Texas initially reversed Dixon's conviction in 2018, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that came after his trial that retroactively made inadmissible cell phone tower location data if they were obtained without a warrant.

During Dixon's trials in 2014 and 2015, prosecutors used Dixon's cell phone tower location data to show he was with his co-defendant, Shepard, in Lubbock as he stalked Sonnier weeks before the murder. The 2014 trial ended in a hung jury.

The Lubbock County District Attorney's Office appealed that decision to the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, saying the cell phone tower data did not significantly impact their case against Dixon, since it was clear that Dixon wasn't with Shepard during the shooting.

Instead, they relied on lawfully obtained text messages between the two to show jurors their plot to murder Sonnier.

The Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in the state's favor and reinstated Dixon's conviction and life sentence. Dixon's attorneys appealed that decision to U.S. Supreme Court justices, who declined to hear the case.

Meanwhile, the Seventh Court of Appeals were left to rule on the remaining grounds of Dixon's original appeal, which involved complaints that the trial court allowed hearsay statements and denied Dixon to include in his defense video evidence that would show Shepard saying he acted alone.

During the 2014 trial, prosecutors called Shepard as a witness, after he pleaded guilty to a count of capital murder, admitting that he was paid by Dixon to kill Sonnier. However, at trial, Shepard surprised prosecutors when he told jurors he acted alone.

The justices found that the trial court did not err in excluding the video evidence because Shepard, who was not called to the stand in the 2015 trial, was at the Lubbock County Detention Center on a bench warrant as a possible witness in the case.

"Appellant's decision to not elicit testimony from an unpredictable witness may reflect his difficult, albeit not uncommon, trial dilemma, but militates against an argument he was barred from presenting such evidence due to the trial judge's ruling," states the opinion, written by Justice Lawrence M. Doss.

Justices also found that the hearsay testimony Dixon raised in his appeal were permissible under the Texas Rules of Evidence.

However, the Seventh Court of Appeals' latest opinion did rule on one ground in Dixon's favor and acquitted him on the second count of capital murder, which made him criminally responsible for Shepard's actions of murder in the course of a felony, namely burglary.

"Dixon's two convictions for murdering Sonnier is violative of his double-jeopardy protections from being twice convicted for the same offense," the opinion states.

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Court of appeals upholds Dixon life sentence


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