The last time 48-year-old Valentino Dixon was a free man, two of his three daughters were infants. His grandchildren wouldn't be born for decades, and he had yet to meet the woman who's now his wife.
A lot has changed in the 27 years Dixon was behind bars for a murder he didn't commit. But yesterday, when he emerged from Erie County District Court in Buffalo, N.Y., Dixon was just glad to finally be free.
It hasn't been easy for Dixon, who was victimized by a broken criminal justice system at seemingly every turn. It took a golf magazine, a group of undergraduate students, and years of proclaiming his innocence for a judge to finally listen, even though the man who actually committed the murder has confessed multiple times over the years. Here's how it all unfolded:
In the early morning hours of August 10, 1991, Dixon was at a street party in Buffalo. At one point, an argument over a girl turned violent, and 17-year-old Torriano Jackson was shot to death with an automatic weapon. Police got a tip that the killer was Dixon, who was facing drug charges at the time but was out on bail, The Washington Post reports.
In the following days, Dixon said he was innocent, as did multiple eyewitnesses. But the most important witness was LaMarr Scott, a friend of Dixon's who confessed to the shooting. "I don't want my friend to take the rap for something that I did," he told WGRZ at the time.
Scott also confessed to police, but later went back on his testimony, telling a grand jury that Dixon was indeed the shooter. Dixon was found guilty and sentenced to 38 years-to-life. But it was far from a fair trial.
For one thing, the lead detective investigating the case didn't testify. "Show me a case where a lead detective doesn't testify in a murder trial," Dixon told WGRZ.
Moreover, Dixon's public defender didn't call to the stand two witnesses who could back up his story, as prosecutors had accused them of perjury. Three people testified that Dixon pulled the trigger, but as the Post notes, none of them were particularly reliable.
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 his testimony was coerced by prosecutors, according to the motion to vacate [Dixon's conviction].
So Dixon went to prison, where he started to pass the time by drawing. One day, Attica Correction Facility's warden brought him a photograph of the 12th hole at Augusta National Golf Club, where the Masters Tournament is played every year. Since paint brushes weren't allowed in the prison, Dixon used colored pencils to draw his own version of the 12th hole.
That was just the start. He got hold of a copy of Golf Digest magazine and started drawing more pictures based on the photos inside. Though he'd never played golf, the drawings helped him cope with his situation. "The guys can't understand," he told the magazine. "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."
Eventually, he contacted Max Adler, Golf Digest's editorial director, sending him not only his drawings but also his case file. In 2012, Golf Digest published a lengthy profile on Dixon. At long last, people were listening to what he had to say.
Among those who took notice were a group of Georgetown University undergraduate students participating in a "Prison Reform Project." The students tracked down witnesses and worked with Dixon's new defense attorney, Donald Thompson, who represented him pro bono. They discovered crucial information that prosecutors had not passed on to Dixon's public defender: his clothes had tested negative for gunpowder.
Earlier this year, Thompson filed a motion to vacate Dixon's conviction.
To solidify the case, Thompson needed to prove that someone else had committed the murder. That's where Scott comes in. After testifying against Dixon decades ago, Scott went back to his original story: that he was the real killer. In interviews with WGRZ, he admitted to the murder in 2004, and again earlier this year.
For the past 25 years, Scott has been serving a life sentence for an unrelated attempted murder conviction. In court yesterday, he pleaded guilty to Jackson's murder. "There was a fight. Shots were fired. I grabbed the gun from under the bench, switched it to automatic, all the bullets shot out. Unfortunately, Torriano ended up dying," he said.
Dixon was cleared of killing Jackson, though since the murder weapon was his, the conviction for criminal possession of a weapon stood. Still, he was allowed to go free, since that conviction only carries a maximum sentence off 15 years.
Now, Dixon will finally get to make up for lost time with his mother, grandmother, children, and grandchildren. He also wants to visit his former pen pal and current wife, Louise, who lives in Australia. "It's the greatest feeling in the world," Dixon told the Buffalo News.
Regarding his long-term plans, Dixon says he'd like to work in New York's criminal justice reform movement.
The movement as a whole could use his help. At the national level, there are countless cases of people going to prison after being wrongfully convicted, many of which Reason has covered. As Reason's Scott Shackford reported last year, 166 inmates were exonerated and released from prison in 2016, including 52 people who had been wrongfully accused of murder.
In terms of Dixon's case, Thompson probably couldn't have put it any better. "[I]t's probably an indictment of the criminal justice system that the best investigation of this case at that point was done by Golf Digest," the attorney told the Post.
CORRECTION: The previous version of this post stated that Dixon has four daughters, when in fact he has three.