LOGAN – A father and daughter who were both sent to prison this year for their parts in the murder of a Benton Township man and an attempt to cover up the killing are both appealing their trial outcomes to Ohio’s Fourth District Court of Appeals.
Michael T. Dixon, 42, is serving 50 years to life in prison, after being convicted by a jury in Hocking County Common Pleas Court of two counts of murder, both with gun specifications; one count of felonious assault with a gun specification; seven counts of tampering with evidence; one count of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity; and one count of gross abuse of a corpse. He has filed a notice that he will appeal, but has not yet submitted his appeal brief.
His daughter, 20-year-old Melody Sue Dixon, was sentenced to nine years after she pled guilty to three counts of evidence tampering and two counts of obstructing justice. Her court-appointed attorney has filed an appeal brief in her case, raising questions about whether she had ineffective assistance from her defense counsel; whether the judge in the case correctly applied state sentencing guidelines; whether misconduct by a special prosecutor prejudiced her right to a fair sentencing hearing; and whether the court should have granted a defense motion to dismiss the case on speedy trial grounds.
Michael Dixon was found guilty of having fatally shot 56-year-old James T. Whitaker in early July 2020, at Whitaker’s cabin where the Dixons were staying rent-free, and then of having acted to cover up the crime by destroying Whitaker’s corpse and disposing of items from the home. Melody Sue Dixon was essentially found guilty of having assisted in her father’s efforts to hide Whitaker’s murder from authorities – but not of playing any part in the killing, a point that is stressed repeatedly in her appeal brief.
In a brief filed Aug. 24, attorney Alisa Turner presents four assignments of error for the appellate court to review in Melody Dixon’s case.
First, she suggests that Dixon’s trial attorney, Timothy P. Gleeson, provided ineffective representation by not objecting to the court’s decision when it denied his motion to dismiss based on how long Dixon had been held in jail without trial; not having Dixon plead no contest rather than guilty on some charges, to preserve the speedy trial issue for appeal; not objecting to improper statements made by special prosecutor Anthony Pierson during Dixon’s sentencing hearing; not objecting to statements made by victims during the same sentencing hearing; not explaining the impacts on Dixon of post-traumatic stress disorder; and not directing the trial court to consider certain specific sentencing factors in Ohio law.
Second, Turner suggests that Judge John T. Wallace was “misled” as to the crime for which he was sentencing Dixon, leading to an inappropriate sentence.
Third, the defense attorney raises the issue of whether statements made during the sentencing by family members and a neighbor of Whitaker’s, coupled with Pierson’s suggestions that Melody Dixon was responsible for Whitaker’s murder, made the sentencing hearing unfair and showed a “willful attempt by the prosecutor to not honor the plea agreement.”
Finally, Turner argues that Wallace should have granted the defense’s motion to dismiss the charges against Dixon because she was held in jail too long without trial.
On the issue of prosecutorial misconduct, Turner argues that during the sentencing hearing, Pierson “improperly urged the court to sentence Melody based upon conduct she did not engage in and to which she had not pleaded guilty,” namely the killing of Whitaker. Though “Melody was not involved in Mr. Whitaker’s killing,” she asserts, Pierson repeatedly talked about the killing as though both Dixons had taken part in it – without any objection coming from the defense table.
“The multiple statements where the prosecutor indicated that Melody was in any way responsible for the killing of James Whitaker clearly constitute misconduct,” Turner contends. “Due to this prosecutorial misconduct, and the failure of defense counsel to object, the trial court was clearly led astray and considered the crimes of Michael Dixon when sentencing Melody.”
This alleged misconduct, she adds, also constitutes a breach of Melody Dixon’s plea agreement. “Though the plea agreement is not in writing, it is clear… that the benefit Melody bargained for was to not take responsibility for the conduct of Micheal Dixon in killing and burning Mr. Whitaker,” the brief states. The statements by Pierson, and the presentation of the victim statements, it says, “represent a willful attempt to deprive Melody of the benefit of her bargain,” and should entitle Dixon to withdraw her plea.
Regarding the “victim” statements, Turner maintains that the people who spoke at Melody Dixon’s sentencing hearing weren’t actually the victims of her crimes, but of her father’s crimes. Nonetheless, she writes, “In this case, the bulk of the sentencing hearing was consumed by statements of the victims of the crimes of Michael Dixon.”
Another way defense counsel erred, according to Turner, was in not bringing up the issues of PTSD and childhood trauma. Though Dixon was diagnosed with PTSD at age 16, she says, “defense counsel made not attempt to explain the impact of past trauma and PTSD on Melody’s behavior following (her) witnessing the killing.” Though the prosecutor referred to Dixon’s childhood as “challenging” and the judge called it “far from ideal,” Turner calls this a “nauseatingly condescending” way to describe a childhood that she says included a decade of sexual, physical and mental abuse by multiple men.
On the speedy trial issue, Turner contends that Judge Wallace acted improperly when he failed to dismiss some of the charges against Dixon, despite the fact that the prosecutor had conceded that a second, superseding indictment against her stemmed from the same criminal activity as the first one, and that therefore her time in jail for speedy trial purposes should be calculated from the day of her arrest.
Once prosecution granted this point in Dixon’s favor, Turner writes, the burden of proof should have shifted to the state to show that Dixon’s right to a speedy trial was not violated. Instead, the judge ruled that he would wait until trial to hear more evidence before ruling on the dismissal of some of the charges – which according to Turner, meant the court improperly “shifted the state’s burden of proof onto (Dixon).”
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