Six weeks ago Valentino Dixon was wearing a prison-issue green jumpsuit. The other night he was in a tan business suit, about to take center stage at Georgetown University. A sound technician is wiring a microphone through the buttons of Dixon’s white pressed oxford, and hanging on the wall above him are framed photographs of recent past speakers at Gaston Hall: Barack Obama, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Ryan.
“My buttons is all wrinkled, why don’t it look like Max’s?” Dixon complains to the technician. “Max always looking smooth,” he laughs.
This is far from the truth, but it’s amazing to behold Dixon, cracking jokes and typing messages on his new iPhone, fresh off a flight from Buffalo, seemingly right in stride with the pace of the free world after 27 years away. Now that he’s back, he wants to fight for prison reform and this November 2nd campus event is a first major step.
Tonight’s audience is getting a deep dive on how Dixon—the great artist of golf—achieved the nearly impossible feat of proving his innocence in a murder case from behind bars. For those unfamiliar with his story, we first met Dixon when he shared with us from prison his intricate drawings of golf courses. Only upon talking to him further did we explore the validity of his conviction, which led to a 2012 story that shed further light on the flimsy case against him.
Sharing the stage with Dixon are the some of the key members from his team. Besides myself, Marc Howard and Marty Tankleff are the professors of Georgetown’s innovative class “Making an Exoneree” in which undergraduate students learn the law by actively assisting the appeals of those in need. Those students are Isobella Goonetillake, Julie Fragonas and Naoya Johnson, and each one gets a big hug from Dixon. The hug with Tankleff is different, because Tankleff spent 17 years in prison for murders he didn’t commit, and the bond that exists between such innocent men we regular civilians can never know.
Yet it’s up to all of us to change a legal system that allows these injustices. Even you, Golf Digest reader, played a part in securing Dixon’s freedom by paying attention and increasing the buzz. In tonight’s audience are students from a variety of disciplines, forlorn family members of the currently incarcerated, as well as members of the Georgetown golf team.
“Prison is a place that’s designed to break your soul. I’ve had friends that committed suicide, and art is the one thing that kept me going,” Dixon tells the audience. “I grew up in the hood, and I don’t know any of my childhood friends who didn’t end up in the system. The whole neighborhood was targeted. This is how you end up with mass incarceration...When people make one mistake and they don’t get a second chance, that’s just not right.”
How exactly did three undergrads, who happened to be international students from England, France and Japan, do their part to help set Dixon free? Goonetillake badgered the Erie County (Buffalo, NY) district attorney’s office for weeks to get an interview with John Flynn, who, perhaps disarmed by their youth, promised on camera to take a fair look at the case.
“It’s not clear to me [Flynn] would’ve agreed to the interview had he known the larger ramifications at the time,” Howard says. “I’m not saying that without that interview he automatically wouldn’t have [reviewed Dixon’s case], but that then made it that he had to.”
In another filmed interview, the attorney who prosecuted Dixon acknowledged to these students that the gunpowder residue testing of Dixon’s car and clothing produced negative results. Which is different than “no results,” or what had been put forth in 1991 when mysteriously it couldn’t be confirmed if the lab had even attempted testing. This slight change of phrase implies a constitutional violation called a Brady, and was a key element added to the successful motion filed by attorneys Don Thompson and Alan Rosenthal which won Dixon’s freedom this September—a motion which included the original Golf Digest investigation and subsequent Golf Channel show.
These students deserve major credit for their contributions, but the point of tonight’s event isn’t to enter the weeds of legal technicalities or pat ourselves on the back. Dixon is on stage sharing his innermost thoughts to make a basic appeal to humanity: “As Americans, we see ourselves as the leader of all nations, that we have the better way of doing things, and that’s just not always the case.” Dixon hopes our society can put aside the egos of criminal justice personnel who don’t want to admit mistakes, as well as certain financial interests tied to supporting the largest incarceration system on the planet.
Phoning in from jail are three men whose cases of innocence are as compelling as Dixon’s. Though physically absent, their voices resound through the grand rafters of Gaston Hall. Holding his smartphone to the microphone, Dixon tells Timothy Wright Jr., John Moss III and Kenneth Bond-El each that he loves them. And he also makes a promise: “Don’t worry. We’re coming to get you.”
Howard and his students first read about Dixon’s case in Golf Digest, but these other three cases they found in a most basic way—word of mouth. As part of Georgetown’s Prison and Justice Initiative, Howard teaches classes to prisoners, and through developing close relationships with them he has become privy to who really might be innocent.
The Innocence Project estimates—conservatively—that one-percent of our incarcerated population is wrongfully convicted, which means just over 20,000 people. Unearthing these cases—and convincing the rest of the world it’s worthwhile work—is a big task. Says student Julie Fragonas, “People don’t want to hear about innocent cases, because they are always thinking, ‘What if they are murderers and when they get out they start killing people?’ A lot of people became interested in Valentino when he got out, but when these people are in prison and need help, that’s when it’s extremely difficult to get attention.”
Last year there were about 160 exonerations in the United States. Tankleff thinks that number would instantly double with more financial resources. “Every time there’s an exoneration, there’s an additional conversation about what went wrong here,” Tankleff says, “which helps the judicial system cure the beginning stages before someone is convicted.”
The lights on stage are blinding, but Dixon doesn’t blink as he holds the mic and shares how he’s been adjusting to life on the outside, as well as his plans for his art career. His positivity and lack of bitterness are astonishing, but not necessarily unique. Howard says: “We have so many people with talent, intelligence, with hopes and dreams, with incredible things that they could contribute to our society and they’re locked away and separated from us, and that’s a tragedy.”
If you want to view the entirety of the panel discussion led by Dixon, you can do so here.
It’s two hours and eight minutes, which isn’t much to learn about our prison system when you consider his lesson lasted 27 years.