Valentino Dixon had never been golfing before. But from his drawings, it seemed as though he spent his life on the green.
He drew hundreds of pictures of golf courses from prison — bright green landscapes beneath surreal golden skies, sometimes bordered by mountains or divided by streams. He drew his first one because the warden at Attica Correctional Facility asked him to, as a favor. He drew the next several dozen because, serving 38 years to life for a 1991 murder for which he always maintained his innocence, he needed an escape.
“It was almost like I was on the golf course,” he told The Washington Post.
He started finding his inspiration in Golf Digest magazine, which a fellow inmate lent to him. And that was how he found Max Adler, the magazine’s editorial director. Adler wrote a regular column that Dixon particularly liked, about how to some people golf wasn’t just a game. It was called “Golf Saved My Life.”
“So I’m sitting in my cell, and I’m saying, ‘You know what? These golf drawings are pretty much saving my life,’ ” said Dixon, 48, “because I’m sitting in here for something I didn’t do and I’m on borrowed time. The drawings lifted my spirits in a way I can’t describe.”
He sent a sample of them to Adler — along with his case file. He said he was innocent.
Adler set out to find out.
Now, more than six years after Golf Digest published a detailed investigation of his case, reigniting interest in Dixon’s innocence claims and capturing the attention of Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, Dixon is a free man.
On Wednesday, a judge in Erie County, N.Y., vacated Dixon’s convictions for murder, attempted murder and aggravated assault. Dixon, who spent 27 years in prison, walked out of court as another man, Lamarr Scott, pleaded guilty to those crimes. Dixon’s mother, his 90-year-old grandmother, his 27-year-old daughter and his grandchildren came to see him freed. Of his four daughters, now all in their 20s, three were in diapers when he went to prison. His wife, whom he met as a pen pal while in prison, lives in Australia and called him at his mother’s house as soon as he was free.
“I always knew this day would come,” Dixon told The Post. “But I never thought in a million years it would take this long. I always thought I would get out the next year, the next month. I kept thinking, the evidence is there. How can the courts deny it?”
The motion to vacate Dixon’s conviction, which features Golf Digest’s report, describes a police case fraught with conflicting and unreliable witness testimony and not a shred of physical evidence connecting Dixon to the fatal shooting.
“As I told Max [Adler], it’s probably an indictment of the criminal justice system that the best investigation of this case at that point was done by Golf Digest,” Donald Thompson, Dixon’s defense attorney, told The Post.
Dixon’s arrest was problematic from the start, Thompson said. After an anonymous tip, Dixon was suspected of fatally shooting Torriano Jackson in a Buffalo parking lot in the early morning hours of Aug. 10, 1991, in front of dozens of witnesses. He was out on bail at the time for drug charges, Thompson said, and not on good terms with the police.
But just two days after Dixon’s arrest, Scott called a local TV station to say that he had to get something off his chest.
“I’m calling to turn myself in,” he told a TV news reporter in footage made available by Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiatives, “because I don’t want my friend to take the rap for something that I did.”
Police arrived and swiftly took Scott into custody. According to the motion to vacate Dixon’s conviction, Scott subsequently confessed to Jackson’s murder again. But for whatever reason, police did not take him seriously. And for whatever reason — Thompson suspects pressure from prosecutors — Scott recanted his confession when testifying before a grand jury and said Dixon was the shooter.
During Dixon’s trial, prosecutors called three witnesses who said Dixon did it. One had previously told police he didn’t know if it was Dixon, one was the victim’s friend and one later told an investigator that his testimony was coerced by prosecutors, according to the motion to vacate. Dixon’s defense attorney called no witnesses.
The two who always maintained that Dixon was not the shooter were accused of being liars by prosecutors and charged with perjury, according to the motion.
But still, after Dixon’s conviction, Scott never stopped confessing, and more than 20 years later, Golf Digest caught up with him. “Each and every day, it eats away at me that I allowed them to convince me to do the wrong thing,” he told Adler. The next year, in 2013, he told NBC’s Golf Channel on camera: “Valentino Dixon is an innocent man. I’m sitting here telling the truth. I have everything to lose.”
By then, Scott was in prison, too, and he was just five years away from being eligible for parole. In fact, he was in prison with Dixon at the Attica Correctional Facility, where the two saw each other frequently.
Scott got 25 to 50 years in 1993 after shooting a man during an armed robbery, leaving him a quadriplegic. According to Thompson and Georgetown law professor Marc Howard, who is the director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative, Scott wrote the Erie County district attorney a letter at that time. He said that if the district attorney had believed him when he confessed to shooting Jackson, he never could have shot a second victim.
“But this still isn’t enough for them,” Thompson said.
Georgetown’s involvement in the case in the years after the Golf Digest report ultimately provided the last push Dixon’s defense team needed to file the motion to vacate.
Howard said students just 20 and 21 years old tracked down old witnesses, who corroborated Scott’s confession as the shooter and also tracked down the original trial prosecutor. On camera, according to the motion, the prosecutor told the students that Dixon’s clothes tested negative for gun residue. That was never disclosed to the defense.
“We knew there was something rotten with this case from the start,” Howard told The Post. “Right from the get-go, it was very clear that somebody else committed the murder, because somebody else confessed to it.”
On Wednesday, Scott confessed for the final time.
“I grabbed the gun,” he told the judge, according to the Buffalo News. “I pulled the trigger and all the bullets came out.”
Prosecutors say the gun Scott used belonged to Dixon, and so for that reason, the only conviction that was not vacated was for unlawful possession of that gun.
On Dixon’s first day of freedom, the first place he wanted to go was Red Lobster. He had never tried lobster before.
He has never held a cellphone before. He has never held some of his grandchildren — he has six now.
In the morning, he said, he planned to cook breakfast for his grandmother. This week, he’ll visit with all his relatives, and he’ll go to the post office to apply for a passport so he can visit his wife.
Next month, he said, he plans to go golfing.
Update: The parties disagree on the length of Dixon’s sentence, which included convictions for murder, attempted murder and criminal possession of a weapon. While Thompson calculates 38 1/3 years in Dixon’s motion to vacate, a spokeswoman for the Erie County District Attorney’s Office says her office calculated 33 1/3.
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