Wrongly Convicted Man Set Free After 27 Years By Super Sleuths At ... Golf Digest!
It's not every day Golf Digest gets noticed as a source of hard-hitting investigative journalism, at least outside of reviews of titanium carbon fiber nanotech infinite improbability drivers or some such. But Wednesday, some journamalisming that started with a Golf Digest story about a guy who drew fantastic imaginary golf courses concluded with that guy, Valentino Dixon, walking out of Attica prison, 27 years after he'd been sentenced for 39 years to life. Not bad, Golf Digest. We give you a GOLF CLAP. And a Pulitzer if we had one, which, sadly, we don't.
As Golf Digest says, the twists and turns of the case are a bit complex (they're unraveled in more detail in this New York Times story), but it basically comes down to a local prosecutor who was determined to railroad Dixon for the 1991 murder of a 17-year-old, Torriano Jackson, in Buffalo, New York. The conviction involved
shoddy police work, zero physical evidence linking Dixon, conflicting testimony of unreliable witnesses, the videotaped confession to the crime by another man, a public defender who didn't call a witness at trial, and perjury charges against those who said Dixon didn't do it.
Dixon had a prior conviction for selling cocaine, and he made a convenient target for Erie County prosecutor Chris Belling, who was weirdly determined to ignore even statements from the actual killer, LaMarr Scott, who pleaded guilty to the killing shortly before Dixon's release this week.
Golf Digest got involved when it profiled Dixon in 2012, reporting on the prisoner who'd never seen a golf course in his life, but started drawing imaginary greens and water hazards and sand traps after a warden showed him a photo of the 12th hole at Augusta National and asked him to make a drawing of it:
I spent 15 hours on it. The warden loved it, and it was gratifying to know my art would hang in his house. Something about the grass and sky was rejuvenating. I'd been getting bored with drawing animals and people and whatever I'd get out of National Geographic. After 19 years in Attica (N.Y.) Correctional Facility, the look of a golf hole spoke to me. It seemed peaceful. I imagine playing it would be a lot like fishing.
Another inmate gave him his issues of Golf Digest (after carefully crossing his own name out on the subscription label so Dixon wouldn't get written up for contraband), and Dixon was off -- not copying the photos, but using them as a starting point for his own surreal fantasias on what a golf course might be (there's a nice selection of his drawings here).
And in the course of profiling this guy who made up nonexistent landscapes and wore his colored pencils down until they were short nubs he could barely hold, the sports reporters started believing Dixon's insistence that he'd been wrongly convicted. The 2012 profile raised questions about the case, the questions got picked up by other media, and students at Georgetown University's law school took on Dixon's case in an Innocence Project style class. The publicity from the Golf Digest story created interest in Dixon's art, so his daughter was able to sell his drawings to help pay for legal help.
It also helped that Erie County started up a wrongful convictions unit after a new DA, John Flynn, was elected, replacing a longtime prosecutor, Frank Sedita III, who was fond of saying he was far more concerned about "wrongful acquittals" than what some convicted murderer said. Everyone claims they were railroaded, after all.
Except Valentino Dixon actually was, and his attorneys, Donald Thompson and Alan Rosenthal, managed to convince Flynn that Dixon was not the killer. Of course, a confession from the actual killer was pretty useful:
Scott admitted responsibility the night of the shooting and has for decades since (including to Golf Digest), with the exception of a brief window of time when Belling pressured him to say otherwise. Scott is already serving a life sentence for a 1993 shooting in an armed robbery that left one victim a quadriplegic. Tacking on a concurrent sentence for Jackson's murder doesn't change his prospects, other than maybe making any future parole a slimmer possibility.
Funny thing about the ol' Justice system: None of the officials who bent the rules to put Dixon in prison for a crime he didn't commit will face any penalties themselves, because
All have either retired or moved to new positions. "The positive is that this case could serve as a shining example to wrongful convictions units elsewhere," Thompson says.
But at least Valentino Dixon can go see a golf course if he wants to. And there's probably a joke to be made here about a "president" who spends entirely too much time subverting justice and fucking around on golf courses, but it's a nice Friday and this story is supposed to be happy, so go check out Dixon's works and forget that other guy. And we'll just pretend that Rosenstein thing isn't coming, even though you KNOW it's coming, and it will be here soon.
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