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Unjust Prison Term Drives Golf Course Artist's Reform Mission

By Matt Bernardini | November 4, 2018, 8:02 PM EST

Valentino Dixon, center, who served 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, talks with Martin Tankleff, a Georgetown professor, and Ellie Goonetillake, a Georgetown student who worked on his case, at Georgetown on Nov. 1. (Georgetown)

It would be easy for Valentino Dixon to harbor animosity and anger after being wrongly imprisoned for 27 years. But instead he wants to take that experience and use it to teach society about the abuses of the prison system and sentencing reform.

Speaking at Georgetown University Thursday night for the school’s "Golf Art Saved Me, Georgetown Set Me Free" event, Dixon, who was imprisoned in 1992 at age 21 for a murder he did not commit, argued for increased awareness of prison conditions. He called them a “human rights” issue, and said he hopes to educate people in the future about what can be done to correct issues surrounding sentencing reform.

“I’m going to be able to bring a different perspective in the role for sentencing reform,” Dixon said. “The system is stacked against poor people, and I believe the prosecutors and judges only care about people in their own circle.”

While he does not have many specific policies planned yet, one of the biggest changes Dixon would like to see is consistency in sentencing. Right now, prison sentences are determined on a state-by-state basis and Dixon would like to see a national standard.

“If I commit a crime in a certain state, I might only serve 15 years, but if I do the exact same thing in another state, I might end up getting 30 years,” he said.

Dixon himself was sentenced to 40 years to life for allegedly shooting and killing another man during a gun fight in August 1991 in Buffalo, New York, where he is from. Despite the fact that he did not commit the crime, Dixon still sat behind bars for nearly three decades.

His story is unique because of the way he spent his time in prison. For 20 years, he spent 10-12 hours each day drawing and eventually became known for his illustrations of golf courses, despite never having played the game, he said.

“The warden asked me to draw his favorite golf course so I did it,” Dixon said. “Then other people started asking me to draw them, and I decided I was pretty good at it.”

Dixon would look at images of courses in the magazine Golf Digest and then draw them. While combing through the magazine one day, he came across the column “Golf Saved My Life,” which is written by Max Adler, editorial director of Golf Digest, and details stories by various people who have used golf to overcome hardships. Dixon contacted Adler and sent him a drawing.

“One day I came across an envelope with a putting green inside it,” Adler, who also spoke at the event, said. “So we decided to do a profile of him.”

While the profile did bring increased awareness, it did not exonerate Dixon. That break would not come until 2018, when Marc Howard and Marty Tankleff, two Georgetown professors, started a new “prison reform course” where the students would investigate several cases of inmates who they believed were wrongfully imprisoned. Dixon’s case was one of the ones selected.

“Once they told me the Georgetown students were getting involved, I knew things would start to happen,” Dixon said.

Through extensive hard work poring through documents and interviews with several high profile officials, the students made a documentary about his case that Dixon’s lawyer was then able to show to the district attorney. After authorities reviewed the evidence, including another man's confession to the shooting, Dixon was exonerated, and in September he finally left prison.

“I can’t describe the feeling I have,” Dixon said of being free. “I feel so blessed because I know that everyone isn’t going to make it out.”

Dixon’s future plans include continuing his drawing endeavors, learning how to play golf and use a cell phone, and changing society’s perception around inmates and the prison system as a whole.

“We need a system that works fairly for everyone and should ensure that nobody is above the truth,” Dixon said.

He also gave some advice to lawyers, saying they should help represent those are underprivileged.

“A good lawyer helps those who can’t help themselves,” Dixon said. “But a great lawyer stands up against all for justice.”

--Editing by Pamela Wilkinson.