How Golf Digest helped free a man wrongfully convicted of murder
Valentino Dixon mailed a drawing of a golf course to a magazine editor, and it led to a friendship and freedom
When Max Adler received a tiny drawing of a golf course in the mail, his interest was piqued.
But it was the accompanying letter that sent the Golf Digest editorial director on a six-year journey to help free artist Valentino Dixon from a New York prison.
In the letter, Dixon, who had been convicted of murder in the early '90s, said he was innocent.
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"I was initially very impressed with his art. But I wasn't so sure about his conviction and that took a lot deeper digging before I … thought, 'Wow this guy really did have a serious miscarriage of justice carried out against him,'" Adler told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.
On Wednesday, more than six years after Golf Digest published an investigation into Dixon's case, he walked out of Erie County Court in Buffalo, N.Y., a free man.
A judge agreed to set aside Dixon's conviction in the 1991 shooting death of 17-year-old Torriano Jackson on a Buffalo street corner. He then accepted a guilty plea from another man, Lamarr Scott, who had confessed to the killing two days after it happened.
It wasn't the first time Scott had confessed to the murder. He did so in 2013, and even called up a local TV station two days after Dixon's arrest and confessed. This time, it stuck.
"I grabbed the gun… switched it to automatic, all the bullets shot out. Unfortunately, Torriano ended up dying," Scott, who has been in prison for 25 years for an unrelated attempted murder, told the court.
Prosecutors say the firearm was Dixon's, so unlawful possession of a gun was the only charge not vacated.
'Golf saved my life'
Dixon, 48, had never played the sport when he began drawing golf courses in prison. He was passionate about drawing as a child and picked it back up while serving his prison term.
A warden gave him a photo of the famous Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia to start, and soon he was spending 10 hours a day drawing fairways and bunkers — and imagining freedom.
"It's surreal because he's never been on a golf course. So it's got this kind of dreamy quality to it," Adler said.
A fellow inmate, who was a golfer, lent Dixon copies of Golf Digest for reference. That's where he saw a column by Adler headlined "Golf Saved My Life."
"He thought that applied to him, and so he told me about himself and our communication and correspondence kind of took off from there," Adler said.
Adler began looking into Dixon's case and found that the prosecution had been "horrible."
"I mean, they charged witnesses with perjury before the trial began because their story went against the sort of preconceived notion of the police," he said.
After the Golf Digest piece was published, Adler said there was a heavy push for Dixon's case to be re-examined.
Media coverage increased, as Adler continued to write letters advocating for Dixon.
Finally, Georgetown University's Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI) took notice. The class worked with Dixon's attorney, Donald Thompson, to have the conviction overturned.
"It went so far beyond reasonable doubt that it's pretty outrageous that he would have been convicted and it would have been upheld," PJI director Marc Howard told The Associated Press.
Celebrate on the green
On Wednesday, as Dixon walked out of the courthouse, he was greeted by his mother, daughter and a crowd of relatives and friends.
His daughter, Valentina Dixon, was a baby when he went to prison. She brought her 14-month-old twins, Ava and Levi, to court from their Columbus, Ohio, home. They were all going to Red Lobster to celebrate Dixon's release.
Adler said he plans on celebrating by taking Dixon golfing.
"I think that's a thing that the two of us mentioned, way back when, that when he got out, I'd teach him how to play," Adler said.
"So that's something we'll get on the books sometime soon."
Written by Sarah Jackson with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Max Adler produced by Imogen Birchard.