How A Story In Golf Digest Helped Free An Innocent Man After 27 Years In Prison

On the evening of August 10, 1991, a crowd had gathered outside the Louie's Texas Red Hots restaurant in Buffalo, New York. As reported by The Buffalo News, a verbal altercation turned violent when someone opened fire with a Tech-9 machine gun, killing 17-year-old Torriano Jackson and wounding three others. According to witness reports, the initial argument was between Torriano Jackson's older brother Aaron and three other men. At some point during the argument, Buffalo News reports, Aaron left the scene to get Torriano and bring him to the location where the crowd had gathered. Several other men, including 21-year-old Valentino Dixon, whose half-brothers had been arguing with Aaron, also went to the scene.

When everyone arrived at the intersection outside the restaurant, the men got into another verbal altercation, which eventually turned physical. At some point, one of the men pulled out a machine gun and shot Torriano Jackson to death. Although three others were injured, their wounds were not fatal. According to Buffalo News, the crowd dispersed immediately after the shooting and authorities were called to the scene. After conducting multiple interviews, law enforcement officials identified Valentino Dixon as the shooter and he was subsequently arrested and charged with murder.

At the time the shooting occurred, Dixon was 21 years old. Although he attended the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, and had a keen interest in visual arts, Dixon was also known in the community as a drug dealer.

Valentino Dixon was charged although another man confessed

By August 10, 1991, Valentino Dixon (above) had already been convicted of two drug-related shootings. On the evening Torriano Jackson was killed, The Buffalo News reports Dixon was awaiting sentencing for those shootings and had been released on bail. However, he vehemently denied killing Jackson. Two days after Jackson was shot and killed, 18-year-old Lamarr Scott returned to the scene, where he spoke with a news crew covering the murder. During the interview, Scott told the WGRZ-TV television crew that he was the one who shot and killed Jackson.

When authorities questioned Scott about his statement to the television crew, he claimed he killed Jackson in self-defense. During the interview, he said Jackson and his friends "jumped out of a yellow Dodge Shadow and opened fire." As reported by Buffalo News, Scott said Jackson fired the first shot. However, he confessed to shooting and killing the man before fleeing the scene.

Although Scott confessed to Jackson's murder, authorities were convinced Dixon was guilty. Prosecutor Christopher J. Belling said Scott later recanted his confession and claimed Dixon's family persuaded him to confess to spare his friend from spending the rest of his life in prison. As Scott was only 18, he would have been tried as a youthful offender, and would have faced a much shorter sentence. When the case was presented to the grand jury, Buffalo News reports three witnesses testified that Dixon was the shooter, and two others testified that it was Scott.

Lamarr Scott recanted his confession and testified against Valentino Dixon

Although he initially confessed to the murder himself, Lamarr Scott ultimately testified against Valentino Dixon. As reported by The Buffalo News, the grand jury indicted Dixon for the murder of Torriano Jackson and the men who testified on Valentino's behalf were subsequently charged with perjury. During the trial, three witnesses testified that they saw Dixon shooting Jackson with the machine gun. However, the defense did not call any witnesses, as attorney Joseph J. Terranova said the witnesses who were willing to testify "were not that strong." In his opinion, "one or two weak witnesses" would not have changed the outcome.

The Buffalo News reports Dixon was convicted of attempted murder, murder, and a number of assault and weapons charges. He was sentenced to 38.5 years in prison and would not be eligible for parole until 2030. From the time of his arrest, Dixon vehemently denied shooting and killing Jackson.

Dixon said it took him several years to adjust to life in prison. In an interview with CNN, he said he essentially spent the first seven years "just merely existing, just trying to survive day-to-day." However, during the eighth year of his incarceration, he rekindled his passion for artwork. Although he started drawing pictures of people and flowers, CNN reports he eventually moved on to designing greeting cards. His case did not get any attention until some of his artwork was featured in Golf Digest.

Valentino Dixon's case gained attention when his drawings were featured in Golf Digest

Over the years, CNN reports, Valentino Dixon amassed an estimated 300 drawings and gained a reputation within Attica prison as a talented artist. Prior to his retirement, the warden approached Dixon and asked him to draw him a picture of his favorite golf hole, which was the 12th hole of Augusta. Although Dixon had never been on a golf course, he based his drawing on a photo provided by the warden. As his drawing was exceptionally good, everyone encouraged Dixon to draw more pictures of golf holes.

Using photos from magazines, Dixon built an impressive collection of golf course drawings. As reported by CNN, Dixon eventually submitted some of his drawings, along with a summary of his story, to journalist Max Alder, who wrote a Golf Digest column titled "Golf Saved My Life." In 2012, Alder published a three-page feature about Dixon's conviction and claims of innocence. The feature also included some of his golf course drawings. Dixon said interest in his case increased tremendously when the issue of Golf Digest was published.

According to CNN, the feature caught the attention of Georgetown University law professor Marty Tankleff, who presented Dixon's case to his students. Tankleff was specifically interested in the test results from the clothing Dixon was wearing on the evening Jackson was killed. In the process of making a documentary about the case, Tankleff's students interviewed the district attorney assigned to Dixon's case.

Valentino Dixon's assault and murder convictions were vacated in 2018

When questioned about tests run on Valentino Dixon's clothing, the district attorney admitted they did not find any incriminating evidence. However, that information was never shared with Dixon's defense attorney. As reported by CNN, the prosecutor was bound by law to do so, and the failure was a violation of the Brady rule. Dixon also contends his attorney failed to call a total of eight eyewitnesses, who were prepared to testify that Dixon did not shoot and kill Jackson. Art of Freedom Foundation reports some of the eyewitnesses called by prosecutors later recanted their testimony as well. Lamarr Scott, in particular, said he was essentially forced to testify against Dixon before the grand jury. According to The Buffalo News, Scott said prosecutor Christopher J. Belling told him it was in his "best interest" to testify against Dixon before the grand jury. Scott also claimed Detective Mark Stambach "repeatedly made threats on [his] life if [he] didn't come to the grand jury and testify."

As reported by WBFO, the district attorney eventually agreed to vacate Dixon's attempted murder, murder, and assault convictions. Although he was released from prison in September 2018, the weapons charge remains on his record. Following his release, Dixon established the Art of Freedom Foundation, and has made a commitment to advocate for the wrongfully convicted and to work with lawmakers to promote prison and sentencing reform.

Valentino Dixon, Buffalo Police Department, and the Erie County District Attorney's Office

In 2019, Daily Wire reports Valentino Dixon filed a civil lawsuit against the Buffalo Police Department and the Erie County District Attorney's Office. As stated in the lawsuit, Dixon claims prosecutors tainted the criminal case against him by destroying and fabricating evidence, as well as intimidating witnesses who planned to testify on Dixon's behalf. Dixon also claims the Buffalo Police Department targeted him in the year prior to his arrest for Torriano Jackson's murder. In addition to "pulling him over almost every day," Dixon claims officers with the department used excessive force against him and "would not stop" until they were able to arrest him for a serious crime.

In response to Dixon's release and the subsequent lawsuit, Daily Wire reports Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn acknowledged that "Mr. Dixon is innocent of the shooting and murder for what he was found guilty of." However, he said "Mr. Dixon is not an innocent man."

During one of his confessions, Lamarr Scott said Dixon gave him the gun that he ultimately used to shoot and kill Jackson. Flynn said Dixon was not entirely innocent because he "brought a gun to the fight." According to Daily Wire, Dixon's civil lawsuit also alleges three other people were wrongly prosecuted and ultimately convicted by the Erie County District Attorney's Office and were subsequently wrongly imprisoned.