In a prison cell in upstate New York, Valentino Dixon spends hours creating beautiful works of art. Depictions of golf courses drawn in colored pencil, they earn him a place in the pages of an international magazine. But little does Valentino know the role that these pictures will go on to play – and how they will earn him his freedom once and for all.
Raised in a troubled area of Buffalo, New York, Dixon was interested in drawing from a young age. And after initially disciplining him for his unconventional approach, his family soon began to recognize his emerging talent. Eventually, he graduated from a high school that specialized in performing arts.
Despite his surroundings, Dixon had managed to live a relatively trouble-free youth. However, all that changed when he left high school and began a relationship with a girl. Apparently, her brothers were involved in dealing drugs, and Dixon soon began following the same path.
Then, on August 10, 1991, something happened that would change the 21-year-old Dixon’s life for good. In the early hours of the morning, a group of people were gathered on a street corner in Buffalo when brothers Torriano and Aaron Jackson arrived. Apparently, they planned on confronting Dixon’s friend, Mario Jarmon, over a minor disagreement.
However, things soon escalated. According to Dixon, he was purchasing beer in a nearby store when he heard the sound of gunshots. Already facing charges of possession, the young man – fearful that any further trouble with the police might land him in jail – claims that he fled the scene.
But the next day, Dixon found himself getting pulled over by the police. Apparently, the previous night’s incident had resulted in the death of 17-year-old Torriano, as well as serious injuries to three other young men. Moreover, the police believed that it was Dixon who had pulled the trigger.
Apparently, someone had left police a tip accusing Dixon of committing the crime. But just two days after the incident, 18-year-old LaMarr Scott told a reporter that he had been the one to shoot Torriano – albeit in self-defense. But when Dixon’s father drove LaMarr to the police station, they refused to accept his testimony, claiming that he had been coerced into making the confession.
Instead, police continued to pursue Dixon as the guilty party. To support their accusations, they had testimony from three young men, each of whom claimed to have seen Dixon shoot the victim. And even though the murder weapon had not been located, investigators seemed sure that they had got their man. Soon Dixon received a sentence of a minimum of 39 years behind bars.
However, there were bizarre elements to Dixon’s trial. For example, the lead detective was not called upon to testify in court – a highly unusual move. Moreover, two witnesses who had told police that Dixon was innocent were slapped with perjury charges before they could take to the stand.
And that wasn’t all. Apparently, one of the witnesses who testified to Dixon’s guilt later confessed that he had been coerced into making his statement. Furthermore, investigators had been unable to find any physical evidence such as gunpowder residue that would have linked Dixon to the crime.
But despite these strange details, Dixon found himself facing a long stint in jail. At the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, he became a model prisoner, earning himself time in the lower-security honor block. At the same time, he returned to his love of drawing. Soon, James Conway, a warden at the facility, spotted the young man’s talent and asked him for a commission.
According to Dixon, Conway asked him to produce a drawing of a golf course – specifically, hole 12 of the Augusta National in Augusta, Georgia. And over the course of 15 hours, he worked with colored pencils to produce an impressive depiction with only a photograph to go on. Naturally, Conway was thrilled.
Not only that, but Dixon had found his calling. Despite having never played golf or even been to a course, he found the peaceful landscape of the hole inspiring. “I imagine playing it would be a lot like fishing,” he explained in a 2012 feature for Golf Digest. Luckily, a fellow inmate subscribed to the golfing magazine, providing the budding artist with a regular source of reference material.
By 2012 Dixon was prolific. “The past two years I’ve drawn over 130 golf pictures with colored pencils and 6-by-8 inch sheets of paper I order through the mail,” he explained. Using photographs as a starting point, he created his own imaginary courses – and in the process found a rewarding challenge that could distract him from prison life.
That year, Golf Digest published a feature about Dixon and his creations. And as well as discussing his work, it also drew attention to some of the more flimsy elements of his conviction. Soon, other news outlets picked up on the story, inspiring justice advocates to investigate further.
In the meantime, Valentina, Dixon’s daughter, sold her father’s drawings to raise money to pay his legal fees. But despite multiple appeals, he remained in jail. Then, a group of law students from Georgetown University began working on the case as part of a class project.
“They did a great job of speaking to witnesses who could still be located, as well as getting Chris Belling [who prosecuted Dixon] to say things at variance with positions he’s argued in the past,” lawyer Donald Thompson told Golf Digest in September 2018. Eventually, the case went to review.
On September 19, 2018, Scott appeared in court to confess to Torriano’s murder – a crime that he had admitted all along. And this time, justice prevailed. Just hours after Scott’s testimony, Dixon was released, a free man after 27 years. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” he is reported to have said.
On the outside, Dixon was reunited with his loved ones, including two grandchildren who had been born during his time in jail. “I’m going to Red Lobster to celebrate with my family and my support team, then we’re going to go to a park,” he enthused. Eventually, he hoped to travel to Australia and reunite with his wife – a woman who he met while she was campaigning for his release.
But despite his newfound freedom, Dixon plans to continue drawing. In fact, there’s a chance that he might finally visit the source of his inspiration in real life. “Lesser men would’ve broken,” wrote Golf Digest after his eventual release. “With his mind and body intact, Dixon hopefully has some good years ahead. Maybe he’ll even take up golf.”