The story of a son, a father, an artist, a free man
Born on October 20, 1969, Valentino Dixon grew up in East Buffalo, New York, the inner city. Valentino was his mother’s only son and was raised by both of his parents. As a child, Valentino was a gifted artist who loved to draw.
At the time of his arrest in 1991, Valentino’s daughter, Valentina, was six months old. Although Valentina has lived most of her life without a father present, their bond has remained strong. Valentino’s mother, wife Louise and daughter, Valentina, were his strongest advocates.
On August 10, 1991, a late-night fight broke out at a gathering outside of Louie’s Texas Red Hots restaurant at the intersection of East Delevan and Bailey Avenue in Buffalo, NY. In the ensuing mayhem, Torriano Jackson was shot and killed. Based on an anonymous tip, the police arrested Valentino Dixon for his murder and for shooting at three other people.
Just two days after Valentino’s arrest, Lamarr Scott confessed to the news media that he had in fact shot and killed Jackson. Despite this confession, Scott was not taken into custody, and detectives continued to pursue Valentino. Prosecutors then built a case against Valentino based on several shaky eyewitnesses (some of whom later recanted and claimed to have been pressured by the police to frame Valentino). At trial, Valentino was convicted and sentenced to 38 1/2 years to life in prison when his court appointed attorney failed to call eight eyewitnesses and introduce the confession to the jury.
Valentino struggled to adjust to life in prison, until he reconnected with his inner passion for art. He regained his motivation to draw by following his uncle’s advice: “if you reclaim your talent, you can reclaim your life.” Valentino has been drawing ever since; for more than two decades, he drew from six to ten hours a day.
At one point, the warden at Attica Correctional Facility asked Valentino to draw the 12th hole of the legendary Augusta National Golf Club. Valentino, who had never set foot on a golf course and knew nothing about the sport, starting drawing images inspired by photos in the magazine Golf Digest. Eventually, Valentino even drew his own golf creations and said that golf art became his escape from the harsh reality of prison.
In 2012, Golf Digest editorial director Max Adler featured Valentino and his stunning artwork in his “golf saved my life” column. Adler also researched Valentino’s case, and concluded that Valentino was truly innocent of the murder for which he had been wrongfully convicted. The next year, The Golf Channel ran a segment about Valentino’s case as well, gaining him — and his artistic talent — national attention.
Despite this attention, and the committed work of pro bono attorneys Donald Thompson and Alan Rosenthal, Valentino’s appeals stalled, and his hope fizzled. But in January 2018, Valentino learned that three Georgetown University undergraduate students would re-investigate his case. Their work was for a class was taught by Professors Marc Howard and Marty Tankleff, childhood friends who were separated when Marty himself was wrongly convicted and served almost 18 years before being exonerated.
The students — Ellie Goonetillake, Julie Fragonas, and Naoya Johnson — produced a powerful documentary that retraces the incredible twists and turns of the case and shows that Valentino was clearly innocent. They broke new ground not only by interviewing former witnesses, but also by filming the original prosecutor, who revealed information critical to Valentino’s final appeal. Their interview of the new District Attorney, John Flynn, ended with a promise by Flynn to conduct a thorough and fair review of the case as part of his new Conviction Integrity Unit.
Today, Valentino lives in Buffalo, NY with his family and uses his freedom not only to create beautiful commissioned art pieces but is now devoted to working with lawmakers to achieve prison and sentencing reform, and champion the voices of the wrongfully convicted until they have achieved freedom.