A US convict whose talent for art caught the eye of a prison warden, ultimately leading to a review of his case, has been exonerated of murder.
Valentino Dixon’s colour pencil drawings of golf courses were featured in Golf Digest – prompting advocates to uncover flawed evidence in the case.
Mr Dixon, 48, had maintained his innocence during 27 years behind bars for a shooting in Buffalo, New York.
He walked free after another man formally confessed to the murder.
The golf drawings
Mr Dixon had served nearly two decades at a notorious prison in upstate New York when his artistic flair attracted the notice of correctional authorities.
The warden gave him a photograph of the famed Augusta National’s 12th hole in the US state of Georgia, and asked if he would draw it for him.
“After 19 years in Attica Correctional Facility, the look of a golf hole spoke to me,” said Mr Dixon.
“It seemed peaceful. I imagine playing it would be a lot like fishing.”
Using colouring pencils, he began to create meticulous, lush drawings of various links and fairways.
“I didn’t know anything about golf. I’m from the ‘hood,” he told local media.
His sketches impressed the editors at Golf Digest, which featured his artwork and a profile of the prisoner in 2012.
“Maybe one day I’ll get to play the game I’ve only imagined,” Mr Dixon said in the article, describing how he drew landscapes he has never seen.
The magazine’s coverage spurred wrongful-conviction advocates to look into the matter. Georgetown University law students championed his case.
Mr Dixon was handed a minimum 38-year-to-life sentence for killing 17-year-old Torriano Jackson one night in August 1991, after an argument over a girl.
He acknowledged being at the crime scene, but said he was at a nearby shop buying beer when the gunshots rang out.
Mr Dixon said multiple witnesses could have testified he did not fire the gun.
But his trial lawyer did not call any of them as several had been accused of perjury.
Unusually, the investigating homicide detective did not testify during the trial either.
But a more serious flaw in the case was uncovered by Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative.
Prosecutors had omitted to reveal to Mr Dixon’s defence attorney that a gunpowder test on his client’s clothes had come back negative.
The real killer
Perhaps even more egregiously, another man, Lamarr Scott, admitted to local media only days after the murder that he shot Torriano Jackson.
Scott told a WGRZ-TV reporter: “I don’t want my friend [Mr Dixon] to take the rap for something that I did.”
But he was never arrested. The victim’s brother said he saw Mr Dixon open fire.
According to the Buffalo News, prosecutors conceded that Scott had been admitting his guilt in the case for a long time.
“Mr Scott has been confessing to this crime since 12 August 1991,” Assistant District Attorney Sara Dee told the court.
“He has confessed to this crime in excess of 10 times.”
Lamarr Scott – who is currently in jail for a separate attack – finally had the chance to formally confess to the crime on Wednesday.
Hours later, Mr Dixon was released.
“I grabbed the gun,” Scott, now 46, told the courtroom in Erie County, New York.
“I pulled the trigger and all the bullets came out. Unfortunately, Torriano ended up dying.”
It was Erie County District Attorney John Flynn – in the job less than a year – who ordered a review of the case.
But despite Mr Dixon’s exoneration, prosecutors say he did provide the murder weapon, which they described as a machine gun.
They also said he was an “up-and-coming drug dealer” in Buffalo at the time of his arrest.
“Mr Dixon is innocent of the shooting and of the murder for what he was found guilty of, but Mr Dixon brought the gun to the fight,” said the district attorney.
What next for Valentino Dixon?
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” he said as he walked a free man from court in Buffalo, New York, on Wednesday.
He was greeted outside by his daughter, who was a baby when he was jailed.
The 27-year-old brought along her own 14-month-old twins.
Mr Dixon says he hopes to keep up his illustrations, and even visit a golf course in real life someday.
“With his mind and body intact, Dixon hopefully has some good years ahead,” Golf Digest wrote on Wednesday.
“Maybe he’ll even take up golf.”
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