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, saved him from serving his full sentence.
His first commissioned drawing came at the behest of a prison guard 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 may have to become one of the greatest artists to ever walk this earth in order to get recognition for what happened to you as a result of that wrongful conviction. “” Dixon told CNN’s Living Golf.
His art has helped him get noticed and articles in Golf Digest and other media have highlighted his case to the public. With the help of Georgetown University professor Marty Tankleff and his law students, Dixon was released 27 years after his wrongful conviction.
Dixon’s art has also caught the attention of some of the biggest names in the world – including former US President Barack Obama – but it’s the artist’s freedom project that he hopes will attract attention and prevent anyone from experiencing what they have done.
“It’s the fight against wrongful convictions and sentencing reform. I didn’t have time to just be overwhelmed. We have to get down to business now,” Dixon said, describing his commitment to transforming the world. adversity in one move to help others.
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“I knew I was innocent”
Life in downtown Buffalo was not easy for Dixon. “His [a] kind of dangerous and drug-infested neighborhood but you get used to it, ”he explained.
He says he found a loophole 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 to the original as possible. Eventually, Dixon said, 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 scuffle 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 arrested and charged with murder and shooting three other people.
His clothes and his car were used as evidence. He says 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 on bail awaiting conviction after pleading guilty in June 1991 to two drive-by shootings,” according to the National Registry of Exemptions.
In the two days following his arrest, eight people presented testimony that cleared Dixon of any connection to the crime. The man who actually committed the crime, Lamarr Scott, confessed to police but was “kicked out of the station,” 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 assign 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, seriously injured victim , [who] told them from his hospital bed that I hadn’t shot him, ”Dixon said.
“None of these witnesses appeared in court. My lawyer did not call any witnesses. He did not even give an opening statement to the jury. And all of this evidence existed before the trial began.”
Dixon was subsequently sentenced to a long prison term for a crime he did not commit.
“I was more concerned about my mom because I’m her only child and she was so upset. I just told her everything would be fine,” 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. “
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Find his love again
Dixon admits that for the first seven years of his life in prison he was in a “bubble” and not in a good head space as he came to terms with his situation.
He says he fell in love with drawing and spent his days “just existing, trying to survive from day to day”.
Then, during his eighth year in prison, his uncle Ronnie sent Dixon some colored pencils and paper, telling his nephew, “If you can get your talents back, you can get your life back. get you out of jail. ”
Over time, his love for his art revived. It all 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 guard.
“The manager comes to me and says, ‘Do you think you can draw my favorite golf hole before I retire?'” Recalls Valentino, who had already spent almost 20 years in prison at 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 reporter for Golf Digest magazine who wrote a monthly article titled “Golf saved my life. life”.
The column featured stories of how golf helped people overcome obstacles they faced and what golf did 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 story about Dixon’s ordeal and his drawings.
In Dixon’s words: “It kind of took off from there.”
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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 other people outside his cell were interested in his life, he knew he would soon be jailed.
“You know what? I think that’s it. I’m going 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 district attorney involved in the case.
“They asked him during the interview, ‘What happened to Valentino’s clothes in his car? I mean, you tested these items,” said Dixon.
“And he replied that everything came back negative. It came back negative, but you never reported the results. That alone is what you call a Brady violation in state law. And because of a Brady violation, you have the right to a new trial. “
And after a new trial, 27 years after his wrongful conviction, Dixon was once again a free man.
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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’s 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 he Nelson Mandela reminded him because of his “wit”.
Dixon might 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 attention of Michelle Obama.
When her office asked for 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 claim 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.
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Barack Obama posted a photo on Instagram celebrating his wife’s gift with a heartfelt caption explaining the gift and Dixon’s story.
“It’s an incredible play, but the story behind it is even better,” we can read 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 crowns his extraordinary journey of being jailed for a crime he did not commit to being released and becoming a renowned golf artist.