The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has ordered a new competency-related review for a Harris County man convicted of murder in 1995, the court’s second ruling in three months on a local case that puzzlingly remained dormant for decades.

The state’s highest criminal appellate court ruled last week that Tony Dixon, 46, is entitled to a review that could establish whether he had the intellectual capacity to stand trial when he was found guilty of killing Elizabeth Peavy during a carjacking. Dixon was 17 and living in a group home for teens with intellectual disabilities when he murdered Peavy.

Tony Dixon
Tony Dixon (Courtesy of Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

Dixon’s appellate attorney, Alexander Calhoun, filed a legal challenge to his conviction and sentence in Harris County in 1998, arguing that Dixon was incompetent when tried. 

But the Court of Criminal Appeals didn’t receive the case until August 2022, when the Harris County District Clerk forwarded Dixon’s filing. 

Asked why he took no action on the challenge after he filed it in 1998, Calhoun told the Houston Landing, “I don’t remember.” 

If a lower court finds Dixon’s competency at the time of trial can be established and he is ruled to have been incompetent, his conviction would be overturned and he could be transferred from prison to a psychiatric facility.

Dixon’s case may not be an outlier. In a written opinion for a separate case decided last fall, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge David Newell said Harris County District Court officials had recently alerted the justices to “an unspecific, but significant” number of delayed appeals, some of which have languished without resolution for decades. 

“(The) case is not an isolated incident, but we do not know if it is an island, part of an archipelago, or an entire sub-continent,” Newell wrote at the time.

Dixon’s case also bears a striking resemblance to that of Syed Rabbani, a Bangladeshi immigrant sentenced to death for murder in Harris County in 1988. 

Rabbani, whom doctors found to be psychotic after his conviction, has had a legal challenge to his sentence pending in the courts since 1994. His attorney argued the jury was not allowed to take important factors into consideration when deciding Rabbani’s punishment, such as bizarre statements he made on the stand.

Like Dixon, Rabbani’s application for relief was dormant for decades until the Court of Criminal Appeals sent the case back to Harris County in April. The lawyer who filed Rabbani’s appeal died in 2008, and the lawyer appointed to replace him took no action to resolve the challenge in the years that followed.

Joshua Reiss, chief of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Post-Conviction Writ Division, said his department will issue a recommendation on Dixon’s competency following the hearing.

“I think the clerk’s office is to be commended for pushing resolution of these matters that should have been resolved by the defendants’ attorneys years ago,” Reiss said.

Joshua Reiss, chief of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Post-Conviction Writ Division
Joshua Reiss, chief of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Post-Conviction Writ Division, answers questions about Syed Rabbani’s case at his office June 6 in downtown Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

‘It may save someone’s life’ 

Dixon fatally shot Peavy, a 34-year-old dentist, in May 1994 outside of a southwest Houston Kwik Stop, where she had pulled off for gas. The Houston Chronicle reported at the time that Dixon “politely” asked Peavy for her keys before opening fire with a pistol. He shot Peavy six times, hitting her in the abdomen and stomach, and left her on the pavement before driving away in her car.  

The crime was random and horrific, and not even the defense contested Dixon’s guilt. A jury convicted him after less than two hours of deliberation in February 1995. 

The question of Dixon’s sentence, however, was another matter. 

Dixon, whose mother was 13 years old when he was born, had long been recognized as intellectually disabled by the justice system. Charged with several criminal offenses as a juvenile, he was deemed incompetent to stand trial in those cases and placed under the care of mental health programs.  

Dixon continued to show signs of disability after Peavy’s murder. 

In a videotaped confession, he made statements indicating he did not understand his crime or the consequences. The Chronicle reported that Dixon “repeatedly asks the homicide detective questioning him if he can leave to go home, unaware that he faced capital murder charges.”

Dixon also told a psychologist that he expected Peavy to live after he shot her.

“He stated that when people are shot on television, they ‘stay back alive,’” the psychologist wrote in a report. 

However, four experts who evaluated Dixon found him competent, which discouraged his defense counsel from raising the issue at trial. Instead, the defense asked the jury to convict Dixon on a lesser charge or find him not guilty by reason of insanity. At trial, Dixon’s lawyer compared his intellectual capabilities to those of a 6-year-old child.

In the end, the jury convicted Dixon of capital murder and deliberated his punishment for more than six hours before sentencing him to death. 

“It doesn’t really solve anything,” Carol Peavy, the victim’s mother, told the Chronicle after the verdict was announced. “But it may save someone’s life.” 

‘Twenty-four years of silence’ 

In his 1998 legal challenge, Dixon’s attorney argued his client was incompetent to stand trial because of an intellectual disability. Yet the challenge remained pending for decades despite activity in the case.  

In 2005, then-Gov. Rick Perry commuted Dixon’s sentence to life in prison following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prisoners couldn’t be executed for crimes they committed as minors. 

The 1998 challenge remained pending, however, because Dixon’s guilty conviction stood. In 2014, the Harris County court that convicted Dixon initiated the process of resolving the appeal, but it stopped for reasons that remain unclear. 

For eight more years, the challenge remained inactive. Neither the courts nor Calhoun, Dixon’s attorney, took any further action to resolve it until it finally resurfaced at the Court of Criminal Appeals last summer.

The long delay worked against Dixon, with some judges arguing in the recent ruling that his attorney’s inaction undermined the claims of incompetence. 

“Twenty-four years of silence supports a conclusion that (Dixon’s) own (appellate attorney) did not find his claim to be particularly compelling,” Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Sharon Keller wrote in a dissenting opinion

In an interview, however, Calhoun said he was “delighted” by the Court of Criminal Appeals ruling.

“He wasn’t capable of being meaningfully tried back when he was a kid,” Calhoun said. “Tony was so impaired that you just can’t talk to him without a question of whether the guy can go to trial or not.”

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly described the order issued by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Tony Dixon’s case.

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Clare Amari covers public safety for the Houston Landing. Clare previously worked as an investigative reporter for The Greenville News in South Carolina, where she reported on police use of force, gender-based...