Golf prison artist cleared of murder and released after 27 years

With an investigation Golf Digest helped open, a New York prison released innocent painter

In prison, for hours a day, Valentino Dixon liked to draw detailed landscapes in coloured pencil. Photograph: YouTube

In prison, for hours a day, Valentino Dixon liked to draw detailed landscapes in coloured pencil. Photograph: YouTube

 

There were dozens of witnesses when a gunfight broke out on a street corner in Buffalo, New York, on August 10th, 1991.

At least three people were injured, and Torriano Jackson, 17, was killed. Valentino Dixon, then 21, was at the scene. Hours later, he was arrested. And in 1992, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to almost 40 years to life in prison, with no chance of parole until 2030.

For years, Dixon fought that conviction from behind bars, insisting on his innocence. No physical evidence had ever connected him to the murder, and another man had confessed to it more than once.

After nearly three decades and a couple of unusual twists, his murder conviction was overturned on Wednesday – and Dixon, 48, walked free.

“I felt like I was in some type of dream,” he said in a phone interview from a Red Lobster restaurant, where he was surrounded by friends, relatives and lawyers, and about to eat lobster for the first time.

As he struggled to get his conviction overturned, Dixon got help from a varied cast of characters. They included journalists at Golf Digest, a new district attorney in Erie County, witnesses whose accounts were never presented at trial, a dogged team of undergraduate students at Georgetown University, and one man who had direct experience with long incarcerations: Martin Tankleff, who was imprisoned for 17 years after being wrongly convicted of murdering his parents and was released in 2007.

Golf courses

In the beginning, Dixon’s case was covered mostly by The Buffalo News. But it gained more widespread attention in 2012 because of Dixon’s art.

In prison, for hours a day, he liked to draw detailed landscapes in coloured pencil. Golf courses were a frequent subject. That caught the interest of journalists at Golf Digest, and the magazine profiled Dixon.

An example of Valentino Dixon’s work. Photograph: YouTube
An example of Valentino Dixon’s work. Photograph: YouTube

In 2017, a new district attorney, John Flynn, took office in Erie County and established a conviction integrity unit to investigate cases that might merit review. And in 2018, a course called Prison Reform Project was offered for the first time at Georgetown University, led by the director of the university’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, Marc M. Howard.

Howard has known Tankleff since they attended the same preschool, and they taught the course together, with Tankleff flying to Washington from his home on Long Island to serve as an adjunct professor once a week.

In an interview Wednesday, Tankleff said he had never heard of an undergraduate class like this one. “This is not a course about make-believe cases,” he said. “These are real people, real lives, real-world implications.”

With several cases to choose from, three students chose Dixon’s case and gathered evidence. They tracked down witnesses, pored over documents, called Dixon on the phone several times a week and visited him in prison. Eventually, they were convinced that he was telling the truth, and they made a short documentary on the subject.

Their work helped Donald M. Thompson, a lawyer for Dixon, make his case to the district attorney’s office. In an interview Wednesday, Flynn, the district attorney, said the newly discovered evidence from various witnesses attesting to Dixon’s innocence was deemed credible.

Confession

That evidence included confessions from Lamarr Scott, who has said several times that he killed Torriano Jackson, although he did once recant a confession in front of a grand jury. On Wednesday, Scott, who is in prison for an unrelated shooting, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with Jackson’s killing.

Dixon said he crossed paths with Scott when both were incarcerated at Attica Correctional Facility. They were cordial, he said, but did not speak much. Thompson said Scott used Dixon’s gun in the killing. A weapons charge against Dixon was not dropped.

Not everyone believes that Dixon is innocent. Aaron Jackson, who was injured in the shooting that killed his brother Torriano, has argued consistently and vehemently that he saw Dixon commit the murder. Jackson could not be reached Wednesday night, but he told WGRZ, a local television news outlet, that he was sure Dixon was guilty.

“He’s not innocent, and he wasn’t tried and convicted in a kangaroo court,” Jackson said. “I don’t think he should ever be free.”

Though Flynn ultimately concluded otherwise, he said he understood Jackson’s concerns. “Valentino Dixon walked out of jail today,” he said. “The true victim here is Torriano Jackson, who, unfortunately, is not getting out of the grave.”

Now, Dixon has plans. He said he wanted to cook breakfast – and then lunch, and then dinner – for his mother and his grandmother Thursday. He wanted to visit a golf course (he has never played the game) and take his children fishing at Sodus Point, New York.

And then he wants to work on criminal justice reform, with a focus on his home state of New York. “I’m going to dedicate my life to fighting mass incarceration,” he said. – New York Times