The New York native was convicted in 1992 of the shooting death of a man in downtown Buffalo in 1991.
However, his well-known golf course hole drawings, which he had never seen in person before, prevented him from serving his full sentence.
His first commissioned drawing came at the behest of a prison warden after Dixon spent nearly 20 years behind bars. And his rendition of Augusta’s distinctive 12th hole sparked an idea in Dixon, whose appeals had been dismissed by all courts.
“I realized at one point, ‘Hey, you might have to become one of the greatest artists to walk this earth in order to get recognition for what happened to you as a result of that mistaken conviction.’ “Dixon told CNN’s Living Golf.
His art helped him get noticed, and articles in Golf Digest and other media made his case more prominent in the public eye. With the help of Georgetown University professor Marty Tankleff and his law students, Dixon was released 27 years after his wrongful conviction.
“It’s the fight against wrongful convictions and sentencing reform. I didn’t have time to just be overwhelmed. We have to go to work now,” Dixon said, describing his commitment to transforming adversity. in one move to help others.
‘I knew I was innocent’
Life in downtown Buffalo hasn’t been easy for Dixon. “His [a] sort of dangerous and drug-infested neighborhood, but you get used to it, ”he explained.
He says he found an escape in art. When Dixon was only three years old, his teacher noticed his talent and helped him develop his skills and abilities with a pencil; he was later introduced to a performing arts high school, which he attended until his senior year.
He began to redraw newspaper characters, as close as possible to the original. Eventually, Dixon says, he believed he had gotten to the point where he drew them better than the artists themselves.
But one fateful evening in 1991, Dixon’s life changed.
While spending time with friends at an intersection in Buffalo, a fight broke out in the crowd and someone started shooting. Although a friend of his fought back, Dixon says he ran to his car and left as fast as he could.
Shortly after, he was arrested by the police and asked if he was at the scene of the crime. After admitting he had been, Dixon was taken into custody and charged with murder and shooting three other people.
His clothes and his car were chosen as evidence. He says the authorities told him that if he had actually fired a gun, they would find gunpowder residue on his clothes.
At the time of his arrest, Dixon “was released on bail pending conviction after pleading guilty in June 1991 to two drive-by shootings,” according to the National Registry of Exemptions.
Within two days of his arrest, eight people presented testimonies that wiped Dixon out of anything related to the crime. The man who actually committed the crime, Lamarr Scott, confessed to police but was “kicked out of the post,” according to Dixon.
Although the police disregarded confessions and witness statements, Dixon says he knew the results of the bullet residue tests on his clothes and car would be negative, so everything would be fine.
However, the police never produced the results of these tests.
Ultimately, Dixon appeared in court. “The court had to appoint me a public defender and the public defender had in his possession the confession, videotaped confession of Lamar Scott, the statements of the eight eyewitnesses and one of the victims who survived, a gravely victim. injured, [who] told them from his hospital bed that I hadn’t shot him, ”Dixon said.
“None of those witnesses appeared in court. My lawyer didn’t call a single witness. He didn’t even make an opening statement to the jury. And all of this evidence existed before the trial began.”
Dixon was subsequently given a long prison term for a crime he did not commit.
“I was more concerned about my mom because I’m an only child to her and she was so distraught. I just told him everything was going to be okay, ”he said.
“I wasn’t really concerned with myself. I felt in my heart that I was going to get justice, but not then. When you’re innocent of a crime and the evidence is there, justice must ultimately prevail, and that is the state of mind I had at the time. “
Rediscover your love
Dixon admits that for the first seven years of his life in prison, he was in a “bubble,” and not much leeway as he came to terms with his situation.
He said he had fallen in love with drawing and spent his days “just existing, trying to survive from day to day”.
Then, in his eighth year in prison, his uncle Ronnie sent Dixon some crayons and paper, telling his nephew, “If you can get your talents back, you can get your life back. jail.”
Over time, his love for his art was rekindled. It started with drawings of Native Americans and flowers from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where part of his family resided.
He says he designed greeting cards – up to 400 – and 200 to 300 other works of art.
He was nicknamed “the artist of Attica” and caught the attention of a prison warden.
“The manager comes to me and he says, ‘Do you think you can draw my favorite golf hole before I retire? Valentino recalls – who had already served nearly 20 years in prison by this point.
“I said, ‘You know where I’m from, director. I’m a black kid from downtown. I have never played golf before. I don’t know, but bring a picture and I’ll “I’ll draw it for you. And that was Augusta’s 12th hole.”
After encouragement from his cellmate, Dixon started drawing more golf holes. He would take pictures of holes in magazines and recreate them. He even began to create images of golf courses and holes from his imagination.
He would spend up to 10 hours a day drawing holes, he says, and then he caught the attention of Max Adler, a journalist for Golf Digest magazine who wrote a monthly article titled “Golf saved my life. life”.
The column featured stories of how golf has helped people overcome the obstacles they face and what golf has done specifically to make them feel better.
So Dixon wrote to Adler, hoping the reporter would present a story about his life. And in 2012, Adler wrote a three-page article on Dixon’s ordeal and his designs.
In Dixon’s words: “It kind of took off from there.”
Tankleff and his class at Georgetown University began discussing Dixon’s case in 2018 in hopes of helping him regain his freedom.
As soon as Dixon found out that others outside his cell were interested in his life, he knew he wouldn’t be in jail for long.
“You know what? I think that’s it. I’m coming home now,” he recalled thinking.
Tankleff and his law students were on the phone with Dixon almost every day discussing the case. Eventually, as part of a documentary the students produced on his story, they interviewed the prosecutor involved in the case.
“They asked him during the interview, ‘What happened to Valentino’s clothes in his car? I mean, you’ve tested these items, ”Dixon explained.
“And he replied that everything came back negative. It came back negative, but you never returned the results. That’s what you call a Brady violation in state law. And because of. a violation of Brady, you are entitled to a new trial. “
And after a new trial, 27 years after his wrongful conviction, Dixon was once again a free man.
After his “emotional” release, Dixon started a prison reform foundation called Art of Freedom, which campaigns against wrongful convictions and for sentencing reform.
Although he admits he is not a golf fan at all, Dixon was invited to the Masters tournament and met 18-time major winner Jack Nicklaus, who told the artist that he Nelson Mandela recalled because of his “wit”.
Dixon could even have been a lucky charm for Tiger Woods in 2019.
“I had a tête-à-tête [chat] with Tiger for five minutes. I said, “Hey Tiger, you’re going to win the Masters.” He looks at me and says, “I’ll do my best.” I said, “No, you’re going to win the Masters.” And he actually won that year. “
Last year, Dixon also caught the eye of Michelle Obama.
When her office inquired about a Christmas present for her husband Barack, who is an avid golfer, Dixon was initially unsure if it was a hoax. After some checking, he realized the request was genuine and decided that the subject of his very first golf drawing, the 12th hole in Augusta, would be the perfect gift for the former US president.
“It’s an incredible play, but the story behind it is even better,” one reads in part.
Dixon also received a personal video from Obama in which he thanked the artist and said he was proud of himself.
It is the crowning achievement of Dixon’s remarkable story, and one that ends his extraordinary journey in prison for a crime he did not commit to be released and become a renowned golf artist.