How Golf Digest and Georgetown University Students Helped Free Valentino Dixon Who Was Imprisoned 27 Years for a Murder He Didn’t Commit

Valentino Dixon on Wednesday after Erie County Court vacated a murder conviction that had kept him in prison for more than 26 years.
Carolyn Thompson/Associated Press

There were dozens of witnesses when a gunfight broke out on a street corner in Buffalo on Aug. 10, 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, Mr. 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 — including a Golf Digest profile that featured his detailed drawings of golf courses — his murder conviction was vacated on Wednesday, and Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

In the beginning, Mr. Dixon’s case was covered mostly by The Buffalo News. But it gained more widespread attention in 2012 because of Mr. Dixon’s art. In prison, for hours a day, he liked to draw detailed landscapes in colored pencil. Golf courses were a frequent subject. That caught the interest of journalists at Golf Digest, and the magazine profiled Mr. Dixon.

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

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. 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 Mr. Dixon’s case and gathered evidence. They tracked down witnesses, pored over documents, called Mr. 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 Mr. Dixon, make his case to the district attorney’s office. In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Flynn, the district attorney, said the newly discovered evidence from various witnesses attesting to Mr. Dixon’s innocence was deemed credible.

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, Mr. Scott, who is in prison for an unrelated shooting, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with Mr. Jackson’s killing.

Mr. Dixon said he crossed paths with Mr. Scott when both were incarcerated at Attica Correctional Facility. They were cordial, he said, but did not speak much.

Mr. Thompson said Mr. Scott used Mr. Dixon’s gun in the killing. A weapons charge against Mr. Dixon was not dropped.

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: New York Times, Jacey Fortin