After 27 years in prison, a man who loves golf walked free today. Not only that, he was given back his innocence. Of course, the state can regift innocence about as capably as it can 27 years.
Nevertheless, the Erie County District Court in Buffalo, N.Y., has vacated the murder conviction of Valentino Dixon, 48, who was serving a 39-years-to-life sentence—the bulk of it in the infamous Attica Correctional Facility—for the 1991 killing of Torriano Jackson. On that hot August night long ago, both were at a loud street party with underage drinking when a fistfight over a girl turned to gunfire.
But before we dive into what really happened, a quick refresher on why golfers might care extra about Valentino Dixon. Six years ago, Golf Digest profiled this inmate who grinds colored pencils to their nubs drawing meticulously detailed golf-scapes. Although Dixon has never hit a ball or even stepped foot on a course, the game hooked him when a golfing warden brought in a photograph of Augusta National’s 12th hole for the inmate to render as a favor. In the din and darkness of his stone cell, the placid composition of grass, sky, water and trees spoke to Dixon. And the endless permutations of bunkers and contours gave him a subject he could play with.
“The guys can’t understand,” Dixon has said. “They always say I don’t need to be drawing this golf stuff. I know it makes no sense, but for some reason my spirit is attuned to this game.”
It took about a hundred drawings before Golf Digest noticed, but when we did, we also noticed his conviction seemed flimsy. So we investigated the case and raised the question of his innocence.
The case is complicated, but on the surface it involves shoddy police work, zero physical evidence linking Dixon, conflicting testimony of unreliable witnesses, the videotaped confession to the crime by another man, a public defender who didn’t call a witness at trial, and perjury charges against those who said Dixon didn’t do it. All together, a fairly clear instance of local officials hastily railroading a young black man with a prior criminal record into jail. Dixon’s past wasn’t spotless, he had sold some cocaine, but that didn’t make him a murderer.
Golf Digest’s 2012 article led to further national spotlights on the case by NBC/Golf Channel, CRTV.com, Fox Sports, the Georgetown University Prison Reform Project and others. Alongside this, Dixon’s daughter, Valentina, led a grassroots campaign to raise money for her father’s legal fees by selling his artwork online. Still, the gears of the legal system refused to turn. As of Christmas 2017, appeals exhausted, Dixon’s petitions for pardon or clemency drew no response from New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s office.
But now suddenly, a vacated conviction—which means innocence—a far more lofty legal victory. Why now?
It rises from a confluence of factors, according to Donald Thompson, who along with Alan Rosenthal, filed Dixon's latest motion (which included the Golf Digest article) pro bono. “Once a case crosses a certain threshold of media attention, it matters, even though it shouldn’t,” Thompson says. “It’s embarrassing for the legal system that for a long time the best presentation of the investigation was from a golf magazine.”
Thompson says Golf Digest’s work eventually was eclipsed by the recent report filed by the Erie County district attorney’s wrongful convictions unit, which is a new type of department popping up in various districts these days. Their report was helped by the Georgetown University students, a group of undergraduates who have also created documentaries, websites and social-media campaigns around three other individuals thought to be wrongfully imprisoned, as part of a class. “They did a great job of speaking to witnesses who could still be located, as well as getting Chris Belling [who prosecuted Dixon] to say things at variance with positions he’s argued in the past.”
Also not to be discounted is the value of fresh blood. Frank Sedita III, the longtime Erie County district attorney who’s said that society ought to be more concerned with “wrongful acquittals,” is out. The new man, John Flynn, has been in the job a year, and it’s basically due to his blessing that Dixon was released.
Of course, one small matter to be addressed before a man’s guilt is absolved is to place it on someone else. Just before Dixon walked out of the courthouse, LaMarr Scott walked in and officially plead guilty to Jackson’s murder. Scott admitted responsibility the night of the shooting and has for decades since (including to Golf Digest), with the exception of a brief window of time when Belling pressured him to say otherwise. Scott is already serving a life sentence for a 1993 shooting in an armed robbery that left one victim a quadriplegic. Tacking on a concurrent sentence for Jackson’s murder doesn’t change his prospects, other than maybe making any future parole a slimmer possibility.
Where’s Dixon heading after the courthouse? “I’m going to Red Lobster to celebrate with my family and my support team, then we’re going to go a park,” he said. The next day he’s going to visit his grandmother, and the day after that he’s going to buy a cellphone and register for a passport at the post office so he can visit his wife of 12 years, Louise, who lives in Australia. She has a golden heart, and the two met because she has spent her life seeking to help those she can.
“So many times I’ve come close [to giving up], but God kept giving me the strength to keep on and now I know why," Dixon told me by phone, hours after learning of his impending freedom.
The careers of the people who put Dixon away will not be impacted. All have either retired or moved to new positions. “The positive is that this case could serve as a shining example to wrongful convictions units elsewhere,” Thompson says.
Lesser men would’ve broken. With his mind and body in tact, Dixon hopefully has some good years ahead. Maybe he’ll even take up golf.