Valentino's Redemption

Max Adler
Golf Digest

Most nightmares last five to 45 minutes, or so scientists who study sleep tell us. Divorced from an earthly sense of time, all the dreamer knows is, there’s no end in sight. Valentino Dixon’s nightmare lasted 27 years and a month, although it could’ve been for life. How he found the strength to keep going while locked inside one of America’s most brutal maximum security prisons for a crime he didn’t commit, and then emerge with his mind and spirit intact, I’ll never know.

That I knew Dixon, 49, was getting out a week before he did didn’t seem right, but this story is about a lot of things that don’t seem right. For starters, a man’s murder conviction has just been vacated, and his first free steps in nearly three decades will be out the service entrance? The guards at the Erie County (N.Y.) courthouse direct us—Dixon’s extended family, TV crews, the legal team whose cumulative effort has led to this day—to a side street where a windowless door is framed by a dumpster and commercial vans. Our number spills from the sidewalk out onto the road, and the police keep pushing us in so we won’t block traffic. After two hours, the paperwork for Dixon’s release somehow still isn’t processed, but the crowd hasn’t dissipated. Relatives from Atlanta have driven through the night. Georgetown University students who worked on the case have flown in from England and France. I’ve arrived from the pre-dawn construction chaos at LaGuardia. This moment is beyond overdue, and we’re not going to miss it.

OK, a guard relays from his radio, the location for the walk out has been changed. He’ll come down the main courthouse steps, or the backdrop you’d expect for such an occasion. It’s a sunny September day in Buffalo, good air for letting the cheers resound when the doors finally open. His black T-shirt stretches tight over God knows how many push-ups, the waist of his jeans is way too big. Dixon’s mom can’t be expected to get the sizes right when she has seen her boy wear only a prison jumpsuit all these years—but all that matters about these clothes is that she brought them. At the bottom of the steps, they embrace: Barbara’s only child, now a free man. Dixon’s next hug is for his daughter, Valentina, who was just four months old when he was sentenced. She has brought her twin toddlers. Dixon missed out on being a parent, but he’ll be around for his grandchildren’s lives.

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I hang back, in respect and awe for the moment. In my breast pocket is the wallet Dixon made for me six years ago, a golfer with my build and name embossed on black leather, which I’ve carried since. It’s been my daily reminder to never stop fighting for him. To continue to write letters to government officials that garner no reply. To continue to tell his story to whomever, because you never know who might know somebody who knows somebody who can penetrate the system. But I grew so familiar with the wallet that I’d go long stretches of paying for things without thinking of him at all. Call it the shame of the comfortable. Prison puts people out of sight, out of mind.

When Dixon hugs me, I feel the wallet between us.

• • •

A LETTER TO GOLF DIGEST

Two decades into his nightmare, desperate and unlikely as it might seem, Dixon wrote a letter to Golf Digest. That mysterious envelope, postmarked from inmate #91-B-1615 of Attica Correctional Facility, was addressed to me. It contained a handwritten note in meticulous penmanship and a small drawing. I was getting lots of emails back then for a monthly column for Golf Digest called “Golf Saved My Life,” which had its own inbox. The idea was to solicit stories from everyday people who’d gone through hard times—grief, illness, divorce, war—and found salvation, to some degree, playing the game. In his letter, Dixon conveyed that although he was serving a sentence of 39 years to life for a murder he didn’t commit and had never struck a golf ball nor set foot on a golf course, he liked my column and believed it applied to his situation.

See the video.

There’s often tension at the intersection of golf and journalism. Even at the highest levels of the sport, where millions of dollars ride on outcomes, the guiding principle to settle disputes is that you take golfers at their word—except when there’s overwhelming evidence to the contrary. At the highest levels of journalism, you believe nobody. And so, fielding outrageous claims has historically made for delicate work. There was the woman who said she scored 16 holes-in-one in a span of six months, and then was revealed a fraud when her life unraveled amid the publicity. There was the retiree who said he walked and carried 878 rounds in a calendar year, which checked out to be true. If not for the little drawing with Dixon’s letter—a vivid, painstakingly rendered putting green beneath autumn foliage—there’s a chance I might’ve chucked his letter in the recycling. Though I like to think I wouldn’t have.

Before we go further, let’s understand that the killing of 17-year-old Torriano Jackson and wounding of three others in a fistfight turned gunfight in a crowded parking lot filled with underage drinking makes for a complicated crime scene—and case. It’s only by tracing the history of the fifth victim—the one who lost the prime of his life to a miscarriage of justice—that we can begin to understand what really happened at approximately 1:30 in the morning on Aug. 10, 1991, at the corner of Bailey and East Delavan avenues in Buffalo, and at the Erie County courthouse in the ensuing months.

Local officials railroaded a young black man with a criminal background, and when it became apparent there had been a mistake, they were too embarrassed or heartless to correct it.

When Valentino Dixon was young, his mother at first didn’t believe he had artistic talent. She scolded the boy for the unconventional way he gripped a pencil, and certain that he’d traced comics from a newspaper, stood over his shoulder only to be astonished when he replicated the characters again freehand. But before he could graduate with a high school degree from art school (he later got his GED in prison), “I started dating a girl whose brothers were drug dealers, and before long, I was in it, too,” Dixon says. “It’s no excuse. It was what you did in my neighborhood if you wanted to make money. I became a mid-level cocaine dealer and pulled in enough to drive flashy cars and cover friends, but not much else.”

But it was enough to capture the attention of local police. The night Jackson was killed, Dixon had been out on bail for a weapons charge. Of the 70 or so people partying outside Louie’s Hot Dogs, Dixon had a notoriety that separated him from the fray. Perhaps this helps explain, but never justify, the quick police investigation that zeroed in on him and refused to look back—even after the real murderer came forward less than 48 hours after the crime, filming a confession to a TV news reporter and then turning himself in to police.

Dixon’s appointed defender, Joseph Terranova, called no witnesses. The opening pages of the trial transcript are Terranova relaying Dixon’s request for a new attorney, based on the argument Terranova had visited him only once in jail, was unprepared, and possibly aligned with the prosecution. But Terranova stayed on and further shocked his client by declining to make opening remarks. Despite no motive or physical evidence, Dixon, then 22, was handed the sentence of 39 years to life for second-degree murder, assault and weapon possession.

How could this happen with another man admitting to the crime? Because after LaMarr Scott, then 18, emerged from his meeting with criminal-justice personnel, he changed his story. He now agreed that Dixon was the shooter. As for the eyewitnesses who said Dixon didn’t do it? The prosecutor charged them with perjury before the murder trial, to prevent the jury from hearing from them. Case closed.

Dixon’s uncle delivered art supplies, imploring his nephew to find solace, or at least sanity, through his talent. But Dixon was dispirited, dejected—pick a word—and navigating prison culture was a full-time occupation for someone who entered at 5-9 and 145 pounds. Before long, living down the hall was LaMarr Scott, who entered Attica after Dixon for a 1993 armed robbery and shooting that left one victim a quadriplegic.

“I chose not to hold a grudge against LaMarr, because psychologically, I knew it would kill my spirit,” Dixon says.

<div class="caption"> Dixon reached out to Golf Digest from Attica, and the magazine published his story in July 2012. </div>
Dixon reached out to Golf Digest from Attica, and the magazine published his story in July 2012.

• • •

FROM GREETING CARDS TO GOLF SCENES

It was seven years before Dixon started drawing. He sketched animals and plants, using magazines like National Geographic for reference material. But his interest in art for art’s sake waned. He started making greeting cards—sweet images with short, original verses—while his wife, Louise, supervised the printing and distribution. (Louise Piromalli is an Australian who met Dixon after finding his art on the Internet. They were married in the Attica cafeteria in 2002.) The bit of income helped Dixon’s reputation inside Attica. Not only were other inmates inspired by his ability to turn time into honest money, Dixon could afford to be a peacemaker. He’d pay debts on behalf of others, in turn earning respect and protection. “If a guy owed another guy five dollars, in here that’s enough to stab him in the back,” Dixon says. The mandatory prison jobs, which for Dixon was a relatively cushy gig in the barbershop, earned 40 cents an hour.

As for the countless children who received birthday cards imprinted with cheery balloons, or wives who got anniversary cards with tranquil sunsets, they couldn’t know the mementos were created inside a six-by-eight-foot cell with inadequate light by an artist wearing headphones to drown the din of violent men trapped behind steel bars.

Louise overstayed her visa and was forced to return to Australia. Her exit brought a halt to their greeting-card business. Dixon studied law to file his appeals, and with what could be described as equal efficacy, read philosophy.

• • •

A FAVOR FOR THE SUPERINTENDENT

Attica superintendent James Conway was a golfer. On his trips through honor block, where 6 percent of Attica’s roughly 2,200 inmates are rewarded for good behavior with daily showers and increased social time, Conway noticed the inmate who was always drawing. In 2009, shortly before retiring, Conway brought a photograph of the 12th hole at Augusta National and asked Dixon if he might render the famous par 3 as a favor.

“Football and basketball were the only sports I knew growing up. Talk about golf in my neighborhood, and you’d probably get shot,” Dixon says. But he obliged. Conway was a decent man, and Dixon found the thought of his art hanging in “the warden’s house” thrilling.

‘After 19 years in Attica, the look of a golf hole spoke to me. It seemed peaceful. I imagine playing it would be a lot like fishing.’ —Valentino Dixon

The occupant of a neighboring cell, college-educated and white, was a golfer before he committed murder. He encouraged Dixon to do more, and another inmate lent his back issues of Golf Digest for inspiration— first crossing out his name on the subscription label (otherwise Dixon would get disciplinary tickets for possessing another inmate’s property).

“Something about the grass and sky was rejuvenating,” Dixon says. “After 19 years in Attica, the look of a golf hole spoke to me. It seemed peaceful. I imagine playing it would be a lot like fishing.”

Inmates aren’t permitted the materials needed for oil painting. But what Dixon lacked in supplies, he made up for with time. By applying layer upon layer of colored pencil, he learned to achieve a commensurate, if not stylistically unique, richness of hue. And the endless permutations of sand bunkers and fairway contours gave him a subject he could play with. Perhaps because he’d never been on a course, his drawings lacked the kitsch common of golf art and took on a sublime quality. Often he would find a piece of reference material, “like a tree on a stamp or mountains on a calendar, and then imagine my own golf course with it.” In nearly two years, Dixon would create about 100 of his “golf designs.”

Some inmates gave him a hard time for portraying a rich man’s sport, but more supported him, excited for whatever Edenic image he’d create next. Dixon continued to look at Golf Digest, learning about the game through photographs, but eventually he got around to reading the articles, too.

In the “Golf Saved My Life” monthly feature, Dixon read about Gary Weinstein, a Michigan jeweler who recovered the will to live on a cross-country golf journey after his wife and two sons were killed by a drunk driver. Dixon read about Howard Fields, a New York banker and kidney recipient who coped with his existence, in part, by playing golf annually with the father of the boy whose death was his gift of life. Dixon read about Sam LoCicero, an electrician from Louisiana who took up golf as a way of reintegrating into society after a horribly disfiguring work accident.

Waking up eager to resume each masterpiece and be transported to a place as far away from his cell as possible, Dixon thought, Golf is saving my life.

In that first letter, December 2011, he wrote: “Some days, after I completed a drawing, I felt like I had just completed 18 holes.”

A murderer who draws golf courses? It’s possible we might’ve run that story, but maybe at just a single page. The same artist wrongfully convicted would warrant a bigger treatment. When the facts of a story are in dispute, there’s nothing better than a “smell test.” That is, visiting to see and hear how a person’s story holds up. Bringing a voice recorder and photographer inside a max-security prison involves an amount of bureaucratic wrangling, but not too much. At each layer, expect laughter followed by some version of “Why the hell does Golf Digest want to see this guy?”

Two guards take handcuffs off Dixon so we can sit at a table in the visiting area. With children in mind, another talented inmate has painted Disney characters on the walls, albeit with bleak touches: Mickey Mouse holds a wilting flower and sheds a single tear above the inscription, “See you next time.”

We’re on a time limit, so it spills out of Dixon:

Word came that the Jackson brothers were looking to get my friend Mario. It was over a girl. You never know how seriously to take these threats in our neighborhood, but sure enough, I was in a store buying beer when I heard the shots: Pow! Pow! I ran outside and grabbed my half-brother to flee. I didn’t want any involvement. I was out on bail, and of all things, I wasn’t going to let some romance drama among younger kids land me in prison. I drove home and went to bed. From what I saw, I didn’t think anybody had died. The next day, the cops pulled me over, and within minutes a tow truck was there to haul away my car. It wasn’t until I got to the station that they said I was being charged with second-degree murder, second-degree attempted murder and third-degree assault. I wasn’t nervous, because so many people had witnessed the shooting. But soon there I was, being paraded before television cameras in a white paper suit on my way to county lockup. Two days later, LaMarr Scott, a guy I knew but wasn’t close to, gave a statement to WGRZ television confessing to be the shooter and turned himself into the police. Because my dad had driven LaMarr downtown, much was made that he had coerced LaMarr into confessing. For murder? Please. My half-brother had brought LaMarr to our dad to set everything straight, and LaMarr owned only a bicycle.

The golfer in me wants to believe Dixon. I feel no discomfort in his presence. “When I was a young man, I wasn’t useful to society—this I don’t argue,” he tells me. “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.”

Of course, that’s not enough. Dixon’s mother ships me his case file in two cardboard fruit boxes, and there’s more I’ll obtain from public records. In all, the transcripts from the murder trial, perjury trial, the paperwork associated with three unsuccessful appeals, affidavits, police memos, the notes of a Buffalo News staff reporter, the statements and polygraph test results collected by a private investigator, motions, exhibits, orders, briefs and so on combine for about 3,000 pages.

Someone with legal training would’ve waded through it faster, I’m sure. Like a bad novel, it took me a while just to get the names of all the characters straight. Over five months, I read and reread documents, and no doubt am less-invested in my day job. But my colleagues have always been champions of the offbeat, and they cut me slack as I make timelines and surf people-finding websites for old witnesses. By the end, I’m convinced of one thing: Nowhere can words matter less than in the criminal- justice system. Opposing sides defecate piles of paperwork at one another, seemingly hoping to discourage or deafen the opponent. And they’ll do this for decades. Amid so much noise, the truth gets as lost as a whistle in the wind.

• • •

A GRIM REALITY

The July 2012 issue of Golf Digest was The Driving Issue and featured Bubba Watson on the cover, but the most explosive story was inside. LaMarr Scott’s problematic confession aside—which I’d captured on videotape during another trip to Attica—there was so much else.

To rehash every detail now would be moot, but the broad strokes are instructive for understanding how black a hole the legal system can be. Any one of the following facts might be enough for a motivated defense to prove reasonable doubt, but in aggregate the reality is clear: Local officials hastily railroaded a young black man with a criminal background, and when it became apparent there had been a mistake, they were too embarrassed or heartless to fix it.

Here’s what we know: Across two decades, 15 witnesses testified in court or signed sworn statements, and they pretty much shook out, 7-3, in favor of Dixon’s innocence, with the remainder saying everything happened too fast or their vantage wasn’t clear. Nearly everyone at the beery scene was a teenager, and many of the key participants didn’t know, barely knew, had just met, or claimed not to know other key participants.

Minutes before the shooting, brothers Aaron and Torriano Jackson arrived in a car intent on confronting Mario Jarmon over an earlier dispute. They exchanged angry words, a crowd circled, and at the sound of gunshots, the crowd dispersed.

‘Now that I’m out, I’ve got to do all I can for all the other wrongfully convicted people.’ —Valentino Dixon

The police arrived shortly to recover a .32-caliber handgun with a spent bullet in its cylinder, a .22-caliber bullet casing, and 27 spent 9-millimeter bullet casings—the same as what riddled Jackson. This is significant because the prosecution would present Valentino Dixon as responsible for shooting all four people. The murder weapon wasn’t found, and the seizure of Dixon’s clothes and car produced no physical evidence.

Of the three eyewitnesses who testified against Dixon, there are questions about the accuracy of their testimony.

• Emil Adams’ initial statement to police described the guy with the automatic weapon as “heavyset.” LaMarr Scott, now 6-2 and 250, weighed about 200 pounds in 1991.

• John Sullivan says he spent part of the day drinking malt liquor and smoking marijuana laced with cocaine. He had a charge pending in Georgia when the police escorted him to Buffalo to testify; he was convicted of sexual assault and battery.

• Aaron Jackson, the brother of the deceased, was shown six mugshots when he was in the hospital recovering from his bullet wound. He picked No. 4, but the identity of No. 4 is absent from the detective’s one-page report. Written on the bottom is Jackson’s quote: “But I can’t be sure, it all happened so fast.” At trial, asked to reconcile his current certainty with his statement from the hospital, Jackson said, “My memory gets better with time.” As for why he didn’t initially volunteer Dixon’s name—a man he knew—Jackson said, “I don’t remember,” citing emotional and medical stress.

Of the handful of witnesses who surfaced since the murder trial, the most compelling might be Tamara Frida, a social worker with a master’s degree who was working in a lab at Buffalo General Hospital in 1991. She clearly saw LaMarr Scott shoot Torriano Jackson before scrambling behind her car. Four days later, she called anonymously to tip the police, and a Buffalo Police intra-department memo about this call survives. Fear of gangland retribution, Frida says, prevented her from coming forward until 1998. A report by a U.S. magistrate upholding Dixon’s conviction would dismiss her as “an incredible witness” for waiting so long, though there was no hearing to let her explain.

Two witnesses, Mario Jarmon and Leonard Brown, corroborated the story of LaMarr Scott shooting an armed Torriano Jackson from day one. But for this they were charged with perjury, and thus prevented from testifying at the murder trial. “That sort of intimidation by the prosecution almost never happens,” says attorney Don Thompson, who worked with Dixon on and off over the years and ultimately filed the successful 2018 appeal pro bono. “If you’re just engaged in a search for the truth, you let the jury have everything and let them sort it out.”

As for why he indicted these witnesses for perjury, prosecutor Christopher Belling told Golf Digest in 2012: “A lot of prosecutors would call it a brilliant stroke of tactical genius.”

Carl Krahling was the foreman and youngest member of the all-white jury that convicted Dixon. Krahling says the initial vote was 9-3, not guilty, but one vocal juror steadily persuaded the rest. Krahling remembers the 11 p.m. police escort through the chaotic courtroom. His memory of what Judge Michael D’Amico said to him in private was: “There’s a lot you’re not allowed to know. Just trust me, you did the right thing on this. … This guy is a menace and should be off the street. Sleep well tonight; you did the right thing.”

But Krahling didn’t sleep well. “In retrospect, I should’ve hung the jury,” Krahling told me. “All the people testifying seemed like shady characters. And if they were all members of a rival gang, who knows what happened?” In a 2012 interview with Golf Digest, D’Amico refuted Krahling’s account: “In the first place, I don’t normally talk to individual jurors, and secondly, I would never say something like that.”

Waking up eager to resume each masterpiece and be transported to a place as far away from his cell as possible, Dixon thought, Golf is saving my life.

Three months after Dixon was sentenced, Jarmon and Brown faced their perjury trial. A key line in the prosecutor’s opening remarks reads, “The proof in this case is going to show that only one person had a gun that night. That was Valentino Dixon.” But Jarmon and Brown were each acquitted of three of four counts of perjury. In essence, the verdict decreed the two were not lying in saying Torriano Jackson had a gun, shot it, and shot it at Mario Jarmon. But the verdict says they were lying in saying LaMarr Scott was the person who shot back. The possible implications came too late to have any bearing on Dixon’s case. Judge D’Amico presided over both the murder and perjury trials.

Naive, I expected this presentation of the case to a national audience would lead to Dixon’s quick release. It would be only a matter of time before a well-connected golfer got in touch with the right person in power.

The story actually landed with some bang. A producer from NBC News wrote Dixon, asking for cooperation to film an on-air feature. But Dixon’s attorney at the time, Bruce Barket, persuaded him to hold off. Big moves were about to happen, but the legal players involved wouldn’t respond well to more bayonets from mainstream media. Those moves didn’t materialize, and a month later, Dixon received more discouragement. The Exoneration Initiative was dropping his case. This didn’t reflect their opinion of guilt or innocence. Rather, they needed to focus on cases with new evidence. When it comes to overturning cases, old and overwhelming evidence isn’t worth much.

I wrote letters to the governor, to the department of corrections, to The Innocence Project, and more. Maybe a surprise copy of Golf Digest clipped to a sportily written cover letter would rise to the top of a pile. In March 2013, Golf Channel picked up the story and produced a powerful segment on Dixon’s case. The same week it aired, in a half-cocked plan, I cold-approached Donald Trump at Trump National Doral during a PGA Tour event. With two Dixon originals in arm, I’d try to steal The Donald’s attention long enough to pitch the artist’s story, and this outspoken celebrity who liked golf and throwing his weight around New York would take up the cause. It was an awkward and short-lived interaction, much my fault, but I’d soon feel relief. Months later, Trump would get in a public feud with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman over the validity of Trump University practices. Any association with Trump would have surely turned acrid for Dixon. This was all before Trump got elected to our highest office and Scheiderman resigned after being accused of assaulting women.

My correspondence with Dixon paralleled his case. If there was a development, he’d call. If he was suffering from ennui, he’d write. A letter dated on his 46th birthday begins, “I hope all has been well with you. I’m holding on. I hope you liked the new golf designs I had sent to you of my latest work. I’m trying to be creative as possible so that I can grab the right person’s attention. I figured the other Golf Art was just not artistic enough, so I’ve tried to reinvent myself.” In this batch, among many surreal images, was a man trapped inside a rolling golf ball.

If golf as a subject matter started as a vehicle for recognition, five more years of isolated concentration took it someplace else. “The guys don’t understand. They say I don’t need to be drawing this golf stuff. But for some reason my spirit is attuned to this game,” Dixon told me. On a deeper level than before, he shared with me his frustration. I couldn’t think what to do other than mail him stacks of back-issues heavy on course photography.

• • •

FREEDOM

In September 2017, Dixon’s attorneys filed joint petitions for clemency and a pardon. I wrote a letter of support, even though these types of releases are, by definition, for the guilty. As the pragmatic attorney Don Thompson says, “Out is out.” There were positive rumblings, and if good news, we’d hear by Christmas.

In March 2018, undergraduate students from Georgetown University reached out. They were part of a special class, “Making an Exoneree,” that pursued wrongful convictions and had read my story. The professors were Marc Howard and Marty Tankleff, childhood friends whose lives grew further linked when the former helped exonerate the latter after 17 years in prison. I told the students everything I knew about Dixon’s case, offered contact information for a few principles, but mostly wished them luck.

In a filmed interview, prosecuting attorney Belling would acknowledge to these students that the gunpowder-residue testing on Dixon’s possessions produced negative results. Which is different than “no results,” or what had been put forth in 1991, when mysteriously it couldn’t be confirmed if the lab had attempted testing. A Brady violation is when such information isn’t shared with the defense, and so this slight turn of phrase qualified as new evidence.

Was it the linchpin? Certainly Belling’s slip-up gave the new district attorney, John Flynn, even greater pressure to right the steadfast wrong of his predecessors. Dixon’s motion included more witness statements, the Golf Digest reinvestigation, clips of the Golf Channel segment, and more—but the only “new” evidence getting official billing the day Valentino walks free is the confession of LaMarr Scott—who has been pleading his guilt since 1994 to anyone who will listen. “Each and every day it eats away at me that I let them convince me to do the wrong thing,” Scott told Golf Digest in 2012. The addition of this murder to his record is handled as clinically as a traffic ticket, and at the end, the judge tells Dixon he is eligible for release today.

But free doesn’t mean innocent. About the time Dixon is changing into street clothes, Flynn is on the other side of the courthouse reminding reporters, “Mr. Dixon is innocent of shooting and of murder, for what he was found guilty of, but Mr. Dixon brought the gun to the fight.”

‘There’s not a trace of bitterness inside me, because if I’d harbored any, I never would’ve made it.’ —Valentino Dixon

This version of events is at odds with past confessions from Scott, but so be it. A felony- weapons charge carries five to 15 years, and so now New York might only be liable for robbing a dozen years of Dixon’s life. “They might be able to prove that Valentino [Dixon] owned the gun, there’s credible evidence to go both ways, but it’s better to be done than to have a trial on that issue,” Thompson says.

Out is out.

“Once a case crosses a certain threshold of media attention, it matters, even though it shouldn’t,” Thompson says. “It’s embarrassing for the legal system that for a long time the best presentation of the investigation was from a golf magazine.” Though Thompson says Golf Digest’s work has now been surpassed by the recent report filed by the county’s conviction-integrity unit, which is a new type of department popping up in various districts these days.

<div class="caption"> Dixon and Adler enjoy a moment together on the courthouse steps after Valentino's release. </div>
Dixon and Adler enjoy a moment together on the courthouse steps after Valentino's release.

For the next half hour, Valentino Dixon will stand on the courthouse steps and orate for TV cameras, and I hear the same lines from his letters. “There is not a trace of bitterness inside me, because if I’d harbored any, I never would’ve made it. If the people who put me away were standing here, I’d hug them.” Sunshine bright on his face, I almost believe him.

Two weeks later, on a bad-weather day, I visit Dixon at his mom’s house, which is near where Bailey meets East Delavan. The iPhone his daughter bought him won’t stop ringing. Ever since “The Today Show” sent a limousine to Buffalo to deliver him to its Manhattan studio the day after his release, Dixon has gladly fielded all media requests.

“Now that I’m out,” he says, “I’ve got to do all I can for all the other wrongfully convicted people.” And even some of the rightly convicted. “Mass incarceration is a terrible thing. There are criminals, and then there are guys who made one bad decision, and if they get out, they’ll never commit another crime. They deserve a second chance,” Dixon says. A day earlier, he met with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s aides to discuss several aspects of prison reform, including better food. “How can you rehabilitate a soul without nourishing the body?”

Besides fulfilling a commission from the wives of Team USA’s caddies to create a drawing for Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk, Dixon’s days have been mostly plain. He wrote letters to his prison friends, whom he promised he wouldn’t forget. He cleaned out junk at his grandma’s house. He filed an application for a passport to go see his wife. He bought colored pencils at a store, because he’s committed to pursuing art as a career. He also plans to finish that autobiography he started in prison.

But what about the magic moment, the thing he’s been pining for?

Actually nothing, Dixon says. “Everything good that I have now, like sharing delicious food with my family, sleeping under my mother’s roof, I dreamed about for so many years, it’s like I’ve done it already. All that time, you see, my mind was on the outside. Drawing and reading, I was living in a fantasy. Now that I’m here, it’s no shock.”

Dixon has landed a big-hitting firm, Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, to try his civil suit. But it could be many years before Dixon receives settlement money, if ever.

Until then, I mention my intent to make good on a promise from six years ago: to teach Dixon to play golf when he got out. “Anywhere, anytime, my friend,” he says.

But it’s raining, so instead he shows me some pictures he drew.

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