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President’s Message: A True Story

Monday, August 1, 2019 \ by Anthony F. Sos, Esq.\ Articles, News

President’s Message // “A True Story” by Anthony F. Sos, Esq. // The Briefs, August 2019 Vol. 87 No. 7. //

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Find your passion and you will find your freedom. Sound corny? Tell that to Valentino Dixon, who was recently set free after serving 27 years in prison before he was exonerated, all because he clung to his passion while locked up in a small cell at the infamous Attica Correctional Facility. The story of his exoneration is inspirational.

On August 10, 1991, Torriano Jackson was shot and killed. Less than 48 hours later, the killer, Lamarr Scott, went on the news and confessed in detail how he was the one who murdered Jackson. However, three witnesses, with skeptical credibility, all pointed the finger at Valentino Dixon as the murderer. Instead of investigating the person who confessed, police charged Dixon with the murder. At trial, Dixon’s public defender chose to waive the opening statement and did not call any witnesses to the stand. Dixon was convicted of murder and sentenced to a prison term of 38 ½ years to life. The problem: He did not commit the murder.

Imagine that. How would you feel to be locked up in one of the toughest prisons in the country for a crime you did not commit? Bitter, angry, helpless? Needless to say, Dixon struggled in prison. But his uncle imparted words of wisdom that resonated with Dixon: “If you reclaim your talent, you can reclaim your life.” Dixon now likens that sage piece of advice to the famous quote from Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Dixon did just that. After seven years of incarceration, he found a way to reclaim his passion for art. For six to ten hours a day, Dixon would draw. He drew plants. He drew animals. Then, he started putting his art onto greeting cards, mixing images with original messages. Although prison confinement naturally limited his access to art supplies, Dixon made do. His artwork was unique because of what he was able to create with those limited resources.

An outgoing warden in the prison took note of Dixon’s art, realizing it was something special. He asked Dixon to do him a favor and, as a celebration of his retirement, to draw the 12th hole of the legendary Augusta National Golf Club. Although Dixon had never stepped foot on a golf course, he decided to give it a try. In using a photo to draw the golf course, Dixon was able to transport himself, finding a sense of peace. This inspired him to draw other golf courses, using images from around the world. Hour after hour, he would spend creating golf art. Not only did Dixon find his figurative freedom in art, but soon it would lead to his actual freedom.

Golf Digest ran a column called “Golf Saved My Life,” which it used to solicit stories from people who used golf to help cope with life’s challenges. The column was the perfect way for Dixon to tell his story because, although he was incarcerated and had never stepped foot on a golf course, he felt golf truly had saved his life.

In 2011, Golf Digest editorial director, Max Adler, received a mysterious envelope from inmate #91-B-1615. Upon opening the envelope, Adler found a small drawing and a meticulously handwritten note. The note explained how even though Dixon was suffering the ultimate loss of freedom – serving a sentence for crime he did not commit – he had learned to find freedom through golf. As Dixon told it, “Some days, after I completed a drawing, I felt like I had just completed 18 holes.”

Highly skeptical, but nonetheless intrigued by Dixon’s claim of innocence, Adler scheduled a prison visit with Dixon. The guards mocked the Golf Digest editor, not able to fathom why the editor of such a publication would take enough interest in a convicted murderer to visit him inside a maximum-security prison. But Adler was curious. After visiting with Dixon, he wanted to learn more about the conviction, so he had Dixon’s mother ship him the entire 3,000-page case file.

Adler spent more than five months digesting the case file. After reading the file in its entirety, Adler was one hundred percent convinced of Dixon’s innocence. In the July 2012 Golf Digest issue, Adler told the story of how Dixon developed his unique gift as a golf artist while sitting in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Adler’s Golf Digest story gained traction. Golf Channel picked up the story and convinced its parent company, NBC, to do a feature film about Dixon. However, Dixon’s then attorney asked NBC to postpone running the story for fear it would interfere with pending legal proceedings. Not long after, Dixon’s attorney withdrew from the case, and the Exoneration Initiative, which had also been looking into Dixon’s case, stopped pursuing it. This was a huge setback for Dixon. Little did Dixon know, and although it would take years, NBC would tell his story in a segment that would ultimately help exonerate him.

In March 2013, Golf Channel produced a compelling segment on Dixon’s case. After the story aired, many attorneys were inspired to help, and Dixon obtained new counsel to pursue his case. Nevertheless, all appeals were ultimately unsuccessful.

Inspired by the Golf Digest story, however, a group of undergraduate students from Georgetown University began investigating the case as part of a class project titled “Making an Exoneree.” The students reached out to Adler to retrieve Dixon’s file and began conducting their own interviews. They interviewed the prosecutor (since retired), who obliged these students’ request for an interview, thinking he was simply helping them fulfill a course assignment. But the students’ Thorough preparation allowed them to ask tough questions. The prosecutor’s answers actually yielded new evidence, including a Brady violation. Armed with this new information, two attorneys, Donald Thompson and Alan Rosenthal, pursued Dixon’s case pro bono, filing a post-conviction motion that ultimately led the court to vacate Dixon’s murder conviction.

On September 19, 2018, after 27 years in prison, Valentino Dixon was re-gifted his innocence and walked free.

Why did I choose to share this legal tale in my “President’s Message”? Not only is it a story of hope, but it shows the best and worst of our system. As a legal professional, it is obviously hard to see our system fail someone. But I also recognize that it was the same system that ultimately set Dixon free.

We can learn a lot from Adler, whose passion helped right a wrong. Rather than simply tossing that meticulously handwritten note into the trash, he acted. We can also learn from the many pro bono attorneys who assisted Dixon along the way. And we can take inspiration from the eager Georgetown students who, despite many attorneys unsuccessfully trying to exonerate Dixon, still took on his case, finding the key to victory. Finally, we can take heart in the district attorney who, after reviewing the new evidence from the Georgetown students, chose to do the right thing and stipulate to a vacation of Dixon’s conviction.

And how on earth could we not be inspired by Valentino Dixon’s mom!! She was SO strong. She never gave up on her son and was ready at a moment’s notice to send the case file to anyone who would listen, including Adler. I bet the file was organized and had been read through a thousand times before she shipped it to Adler. Moms are often so awesome, but their spirit and actions can go unnoticed.

Most of all, though, Dixon’s resilient spirit teaches that we can find peace in the most unlikely of places. Reclaim your talent; reclaim your life.

Anthony F. Sos, Esq., is a partner at Dellecker, Wilson, King, McKenna, Ruffier & Sos, LLP. He has been a member of the OCBA since 2005.

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