Drawing golf courses was the reason God put him here, Valentino Dixon thought. Maybe one day he’d even get a chance to try the game.
Dixon wrote as much in Golf Digest magazine back in 2012. Incarcerated at the time in the infamous Attica correctional facility in New York, he was in the midst of serving 39 years to life for a murder he had been convicted of in 1991. Now, six years after his story came to the attention of the magazine’s readers, and after spending 27 years in prison, he may finally get his chance as his conviction has been vacated.
If not for the 48-year-old Dixon’s fortuitous aptitude for drawing golf courses, he might have never walked free again. Although he’d never been on one, a prison warden who knew that he liked to draw had shown him a picture of the 12th hole at Augusta National. Dixon took to it immediately, reproducing a drawing that the warden ended up loving.
“Something about the grass and sky was rejuvenating,” Dixon wrote. “It seemed peaceful. I imagine playing it would be a lot like fishing.”
Over the next few years he would draw more than 100 golf courses, taking inspiration from a Golf Digest magazine he’d borrow surreptitiously from a fellow inmate. Eventually his hobby found its way to an editor at the magazine, who decided to give him space to write about it. They also noticed, as the editorial director, Max Adler, wrote this week, that his case seemed particularly flimsy. They ran a story about the tenuous nature of his case, which led to a flurry of media attention, and aid from Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, which took on the case.
As Adler writes, the murder conviction was based on suspicious evidence, shoddy police work, unreliable witnesses and irresponsible prosecutorial methods.
With a brighter spotlight on his case, and a series of volunteers and lawyers working on his behalf, it became harder for state officials to ignore.
“Once a case crosses a certain threshold of media attention, it matters, even though it shouldn’t,” Donald Thompson, one of the lawyers who worked on his behalf, told Golf Digest. “It’s embarrassing for the legal system that for a long time the best presentation of the investigation was from a golf magazine.”
It is embarrassing, and an indictment on the criminal justice system, something Erie county’s district attorney’s wrongful convictions unit and recently incoming district attorney, John Flynn seemed eager to correct.
Through their efforts, another man already serving life in prison for murder, LaMarr Scott, pleaded guilty to the murder in question. He had admitted responsibility all along, including on the night of the murder Dixon was convicted for, but the prosecutor at the time pressured him to say otherwise.
“It’s possible I wouldn’t have lived to this age if I’d stayed on the outside,” Dixon wrote back in 2012. “When I was a young man I wasn’t useful to society – this I don’t argue. But I’m not a murderer. That’s the worst thing somebody can be, and I’m not that. I hope all you need to do is look at my drawings to know that.”
Someone did, and now we know.