COLUMBUS — A federal court Thursday overturned the conviction and death sentence of Archie J. Dixon, finding that his confession in the “buried alive'' death of Christopher Hammer in 1993 was coerced by police.
In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals gave Lucas County six months to retry Dixon.
The court, in overturning a 2004 Ohio Supreme Court decision, found that police withheld advising Dixon, then of Toledo, of his Miranda rights while questioning him on a forgery charge. They later got a confession from Dixon in the Toledo police station when the focus shifted to murder, and then advised him of his rights before recording that confession.
The court found that police intentionally did not advise Dixon of his rights to remain silent and speak to an attorney because they knew from experience with him that the conversation would end if they did so.
“A confession obtained by this kind of police pressure is inadmissible under Miranda and coerced and involuntary under the Due Process Clause (of the U.S. Constitution),'' wrote Judge Gilbert S. Merritt, Jr.
“If the consequences of this kind of deliberate, unlawful conduct specifically designed to violate Miranda and get a confession is allowed to prevail, as our dissenting colleague contends, the time has come to simply overrule Miranda.''
The ruling agrees with the original decision of the late Lucas County Common Pleas Judge William Skow, who determined that the second interview was essentially a continuation of the first. That decision was reversed by the state Supreme Court.
The Lucas County prosecutor's office has the option of asking the entire 6th Circuit bench or the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the three-judge panel's decision.
Dixon initially was arrested and questioned on a charge of forgery, not murder. At the time police were aware of Mr. Hammer's disappearance but hadn't yet found his body. Dixon denied knowledge of the disappearance but admitted to forging Mr. Hammer's automobile title.
After Mr. Hammer's body was found in a shallow grave in Sylvania Township, police questioned Dixon again. At this time he asked police if the man who would later be convicted as his accomplice, Timothy Hoffner, was in custody. Dixon indicated that he had talked to an attorney and wanted to talk. After being read his rights, Dixon implicated himself in the murder.
Dixon and Hoffner were convicted of aggravated murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. The jury believed that the pair had severely beaten Mr. Hammer in September, 1993, and then took him to a wooded area and buried him alive. First, they allegedly allowed him to smoke a cigarette and say a prayer.
Judge Eugene E. Siler, Jr., the dissenting vote, said he believed that the amount of time that had passed between the two interviews, the shift in focus from forgery to murder, and the fact that Dixon told police during the second interview that he had talked to an attorney lifted the taint from the confession.
He also opined that the loss of the confession at trial would not have changed the jury's verdict.
“Here, several witnesses established that Dixon stole Hammer's car about the time of his disappearance,'' Judge Siler wrote. “Even more damaging, however, was the testimony of Kristen Wilkerson, Dixon's girlfriend, who described in great detail the efforts of both Dixon and Hoffner, as well as her own participation, to kill Hammer and transport him to the burial site.
"Thus, the admission of Dixon's statement to the police did not have a substantial and injurious effect upon the jury's verdict.''