ATTICA, N.Y. (AP) — Valentino Dixon’s colored pencil drawings evoke carefree days on the links, dewy greens, open spaces, fresh air enlivened by flowers and crisply trimmed fairways.
But the artist has never set foot on a golf course.
For 22 years, Dixon’s world has been concrete floors and metal bars, fluorescent lights and tiny spaces.
It is nothing like what appears on paper as he runs rainbows of pencils down to nubs on blades of grass, reflective ponds, sweeping branches — all the while hoping that someday it will exist for him outside of his imagination.
Outside the walls of Attica.
Hope hinges on Dixon’s efforts to overturn his conviction for a murder that another man confessed to: the Aug. 10, 1991, shooting death of 17-year-old Torriano Jackson on a crowded street corner on Buffalo’s east side.
Proclaiming his innocence through evermore legal motions and appeals, Dixon draws, spending 10 to 12 hours a day illustrating a kind of serenity he has never known.
“They’d have run me out if I talked about golf,” he said during a recent interview with The Associated Press inside the maximum-security prison, recalling the tough city streets where football and basketball ruled.
He knew early on he had a talent for drawing, copying comic strip characters so perfectly his mother thought he’d traced them. An elementary school teacher guided him into Buffalo’s Academy for Visual and Performing Arts for high school. But one class shy of a diploma, he entered a world of drug dealing and guns.
“I know I disappointed my teachers at performing arts,” he says now, inside this upstate New York fortress infamous for a deadly 1971 riot. “I wanted to become one of the best in the world.”
Dixon, now 43, knew trouble was brewing that night in 1991. But he said he was inside a store buying beer when he heard the shots that would send four victims to the hospital. Torriano Jackson was shot 27 times, and his older brother, Aaron, was among the wounded.
Out on bail with drug and weapons charges pending, Dixon went home and went to bed, he said, only to be arrested the next day.
“I wasn’t nervous,” he said. “I thought, ‘The truth will come out.’”
But when investigators disregarded a confession by 18-year-old LaMarr Scott, saying it was coerced by Dixon’s family, Dixon was on his way to trial and a sentence of 39 years to life. With no physical evidence, jurors in Dixon’s trial relied on the testimony of three prosecution witnesses, Dixon said, and his own lawyer’s refusal to call witnesses of his own. He’s eligible for parole in 2030.
“To this day, I’m trying to figure out why they arrested me in the first place,” he said. Since his conviction, several witnesses have come forward to say Dixon was not the gunman, and he has passed a lie-detector test, all part of his bid for freedom.
None of it sways prosecutor Christopher Belling, who built the case against Dixon.
“He’s had at least three appeal proceedings and each time the courts have upheld his conviction,” said Belling, now senior trial counsel in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.
Sitting in his prison cell in 1998, Dixon picked up the pencils an uncle had sent him and, for the first time in about a decade, began drawing. Animals, landscapes, people. When then-prison Supt. James Conway gave Dixon a picture of the 12th hole of Augusta National, home of The Masters, and asked if he would draw it in 2009, something about it spoke to him.
“I’ve been drawing the golf courses ever since,” he said.
Hours of drawing are broken up by workouts, meals, prayers and reading. Earphones counter prison noise with the music of Celine Dion, Billy Joel, Whitney Houston.
Trapping his pencil between his fingers and thumb in a grip that got him in trouble as a boy, the white of the paper disappears completely, as if painted.
“It takes a lot of layering. Colors on top of colors,” Dixon said, demonstrating a technique honed over time.
His mother, Barbara Dixon, knowing her son has never set foot on a golf course, is convinced a higher power is at work.
“Once he started drawing the golf courses, he said, ‘Ma, I feel such a sense of peace unlike anything I’ve ever felt,’” she said.
A fellow inmate’s Golf Digest subscription provides the pictures that have been his inspiration. More than 130 golf drawings later, the magazine opened another door with its regular feature, “Golf Saved My Life,” written each month by a contributor with staff writer Max Adler.
“I’ve never hit a golf ball,” began Dixon’s essay, published last July. “Everything I draw is from inside a 6-by-10 prison cell.”
He described his descent from art student to cocaine dealer to murder suspect to inmate inside Attica’s “honor block” for those with the cleanest disciplinary records.
“When I was a young man I wasn’t useful to society — this I don’t argue. But I’m not a murderer,” the father of three wrote. “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.”
Adler spent five months delving into Dixon’s story, reading thousands of pages of trial transcripts, police reports and affidavits and interviewing attorneys, the trial judge, a juror, witnesses and others. He followed the inmate’s essay with a detailed retelling of the crime and conviction, coming away convinced an injustice had been done.
“In the accumulation of every detail,” Adler said by phone, “I’m left without any doubt that he is innocent.”
Shooting victim Aaron Jackson disagrees.
“I’m glad that he’s found himself with whatever it is that he’s doing,” said Jackson, a community activist who mentors youth. “But my younger brother, his life came to a terrible end. … (Dixon) went to prison and Torriano went to a grave.”