How golf saved a man wrongfully convicted of murder

Wednesday May 15 2019

Video grab dated May 2, 2019 shows Valentino Dixon (L), presenting his drawings to inmates in a prison in Washington, DC during a visit as Marc Howard, a Georgetown University Professor and founding Director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI), a study program dedicated to clearing people who had been wrongly convicted, looks on. PHOTO | GILLES CLARENNE |

Video grab dated May 2, 2019 shows Valentino Dixon (L), presenting his drawings to inmates in a prison in Washington, DC during a visit as Marc Howard, a Georgetown University Professor and founding Director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI), a study program dedicated to clearing people who had been wrongly convicted, looks on. PHOTO | GILLES CLARENNE |  AFP

AFP
By AFP
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WASHINGTON

Convicted for a crime he did not commit, Valentino Dixon spent 28 years behind bars. Then, less than a year after his release, he has returned to prison to tell inmates how golf saved his life.

"I played twice (and) I am no good at it," said the 49-year-old during a visit to a penitentiary in Washington.

Yet it was this sport that ultimately got him out of jail and which now allows him to lobby for reform in the US penal system before unexpected audiences.

Dixon, who grew up in a rough neighbourhood of Buffalo in the northeastern United States, had never before set foot on a green when his life was upended one night in August 1991.

That was when a fight broke out in front of a restaurant and shots were fired, leaving a man dead.

Two days later, on the basis of an anonymous tip-off, police arrested Dixon, who was at the time the young father of a six-month-old baby girl.

Another man later told reporters that he was the one who actually pulled the trigger that night, but the authorities refused to speak to him.

"Eight witnesses cleared me of the crime. When I went to trial, my lawyer did not call any of those witnesses. So, I was convicted and given a 39-year sentence," Dixon told AFP.

For the first seven years in prison Dixon said he was simply bored, but then he began "drawing my butt off." He spent up to 10 hours per-day drawing, refining his technique and impressing those around him.

After being shown a photo by a prison guard, Dixon drew a picture of the 12th hole of the famous Augusta golf course in Georgia. That launched him on a journey to draw other clubs, and even to invent his own.

One day, he wrote to a journalist penning a column called "Golf Saved Me" in the magazine Golf Digest.

Recognizing his talent, the reporter did some research on Dixon and penned a long article about him.

That article garnered attention at Georgetown University in Washington, which had a study program dedicated to clearing people who had been wrongly convicted. Three students started investigating Dixon's case and finally produced a documentary about him.

In front of their camera, the prosecutor in charge of the case admitted having sought traces of gunpowder on the suspect's clothes in 1991 and finding nothing, a vital piece of information he had always kept to himself.

"Twenty-seven years later, without doing it on purpose, he confessed," Marc Howard, the professor in charge of the program at Georgetown, said of the prosecutor. "Valentino's lawyer was able to use that to get him out of jail."

On September 19, 2018, Dixon, now in his late forties, walked out of prison a free man.

Since then, he was has been trying to be a "good grandfather" and catch up on all the new technologies that have transformed the world while he was locked up.

He has also been working to help the two million or so Americans who are behind bars, and whose sentences he says are all too often "excessive."

In early May this year, he made his first trip back to a prison since his release.

"I don't want to be here, but I got to be here, to show support," he said, showing no signs of jitters.

"I am not nervous at all," he said. "It's like a second home, I hate to say it, but that's the reality. I am used to being around guys who are incarcerated."

The man with a broad smile earned laughs and approval from his audience of around 30 men and women in orange prison uniforms who had come to hear him speak, and who thanked him as he left for the visit.

The next day, Dixon headed to a completely different world, invited to talk to members of a St Louis golf club in Missouri, as he had already done at the Masters in Augusta.

"I have been speaking at golf clubs, you know, just trying to inform people in the golf community about the issues in regard with prison reforms, because these are not issues that they would normally either know about or come into contact with," said Dixon, who has met golf champions like Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.

"So I am the link between the inner city and the golf course," he said.

Howard, the Georgetown professor, attended one of the meetings. "Valentino has a great deal of charm, everyone loves to hear him speak," he said. "Two worlds meet in him and his story."

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