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WASHINGTON — The murder conviction and death sentence of Archie Dixon in the 1993 “buried-alive” slaying of his former roommate, Christopher Hammer, were reinstated Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court overturned last year’s decision by the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that threw out the conviction and ordered a new trial after determining that Dixon’s confession to the crime was tainted.
The lower court found that, although police started questioning him first about a related forgery charge, they did not inform Dixon of his Miranda rights to remain silent and consult with an attorney until after a second interview in which he confessed to the murder.
He was then read his rights before the confession was recorded. The 6th Circuit Court had agreed with then Lucas County Common Pleas Judge William Skow that the second interview was essentially a continuation of the tainted first.
“There is no evidence that any of Dixon’s statements were the product of actual coercion,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled. “That does not excuse the detectives’ decision not to give Dixon Miranda warnings before his first interrogation. But the Ohio courts recognized that failure and imposed the appropriate remedy — exclusion of Dixon’s forgery confession and the attendant statements given without the benefit of Miranda warnings.”
Dixon was initially arrested for forgery, not murder, in connection with the disappearance of Mr. Hammer, 22, whose body had yet to be found. Dixon denied any role in the disappearance but admitted forging Mr. Hammer’s automobile title.
Soon after, Mr. Hammer’s body was found in a shallow grave in Sylvania Township. Dixon was informed that Timothy Hoffner, a man who would later be convicted as his accomplice, was in custody and that he had led them to the body.
Both Dixon and Hoffner were convicted of aggravated murder, kidnapping, aggravated robbery, and forgery. They had reportedly led Mr. Hammer to a wooded area, let him smoke a cigarette and say a prayer, and then buried him alive.
“We are pleased with the court’s decision,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office handled the federal appeals. “Dixon committed a gruesome murder. He confessed, and the Ohio courts gave him a fair trial.”
Dixon, 38, and Hoffner, 39, are on death row at the Ohio State Penitentiary near Youngstown. A third person, Kristen Wilkerson, Dixon’s girlfriend, was convicted of kidnapping but was released from prison after she cooperated with police in the case.
“We are very disappointed that the Supreme Court allowed this conviction to stand while at the same time recognizing that police officers set about a conspiracy to intentionally violate Mr. Dixon’s rights under Miranda,” said Dixon’s court-appointed attorney, Michael Benza from Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
“It’s important for people to know that the Supreme Court found the police broke the law in this case and they did it on purpose,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously sent the case back to the 6th Circuit to deal with other issues raised in this case, among them allegations of ineffectiveness of counsel and the trial court’s exclusion of evidence in the sentencing phase of the case.
“In this case Dixon steadfastly maintained during his first, unwarned interrogation that he had ‘nothing whatsoever’ to do with Hammer’s disappearance,” the court’s decision reads.
“Thus … there is no concern here that police gave Dixon Miranda warnings and then led him to repeat an earlier murder confession, because there was no earlier confession to repeat.
“Indeed, Dixon contradicted his prior unwarned statements when he confessed to Hammer’s murder,” the court wrote. “Nor is there any evidence that police used Dixon’s earlier admission to forgery to induce him to waive his right to silence later: Dixon declared his desire to tell police what happened to Hammer before the second interrogation session even began.”
— Jim Provance