An American man convicted of murder walked free from court on Wednesday after serving 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Valentino Dixon, 48, was freed after his extraordinary talent for drawing golf courses brought his case to the attention of journalists at Golf Digest, whose research found crucial flaws in the case against him.
He always maintained he was not responsible for the 1991 shooting of a 17-year-old in Buffalo, New York, despite being sentenced to a minimum of 38 years in prison for murder.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” he said as he walked free, according to the Buffalo News. “We’ve been waiting 27 years for this.”
His improbably path to freedom began 20 years ago when he picked up the pencils sent to him by an uncle and began drawing in his maximum security cell. At first, it was animals, landscapes and people.
Dixon says his unusual grip would get him in trouble at school, but since then he has develop a technique of layering colour on colour to get a dense, vibrant result Credit: David Duprey/AP
He turned his attention to golf in 2009 when the then prison warden gave him a picture of the 12th hole at the Augusta National, home of the Masters, and asked him to draw it.
It was an unusual subject for a boy who grew up in a part of town where American football and basketball were the only sports going and who admits to becoming a drug dealer. But it offered an escape.
“After 19 years in Attica Correctional Facility, the look of a golf hole spoke to me,” wrote Mr Dixon later in an essay for Golf Digest.
“It seemed peaceful. I imagine playing it would be a lot like fishing.”
His artwork impressed the editors of Golf Digest, which ran the essay in its “Golf saved my life” slot in 2012, along with a selection of his drawings.
At the same time, the monthly magazine began looking at his conviction.
Max Adler, a staff writer, spent five months delving into the case, reading trial transcripts, police reports and interviewing attorneys, the trial judge, witnesses and more.
The 12th hole at the Augusta National, which began it all Credit: Getty Images
“In the accumulation of every detail,” he said in an interview a year later. “I’m left without any doubt that he is innocent.”
Within two days of the killing of Torriano Jackson in a car park, another man had told local media that he was responsible.
“I don’t want my friend [Mr Dixon] to take the rap for something that I did,” Lamarr Scott told a WGRZ-TV reporter.
Mr Dixon’s own defence failed to call witnesses that would have supported his innocence. In an unusual step, the lead investigator in the case did not present evidence at the trial.
The spotlight provided by Golf Digest led to more attention and the case was picked up by the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University. Its students revealed a further problem with the prosecution case: Government lawyers failed to tell the defence that Mr Dixon’s clothes revealed no traces of the residues expected on someone who has used a firearm.
Dixon always maintained his innocence during his time at Attica Correctional Facility Credit: AP
On Wednesday, the case returned to the Erie County Courthouse for Scott’s confession to be finally heard.
“I grabbed the gun,” he said, according to the Buffalo News. “I pulled the trigger and all the bullets came out. Unfortunately, Torriano ended up dying.”
An hour later, Mr Dixon was told he would be freed.
However, there was a reminder of his old life. Prosecutors said Mr Dixon was an “up-and-coming drug dealer” in Buffalo and had provided the murder weapon to Scott, who was acting as his bodyguard.
One conviction, relating to a machine pistol, was not vacated as a result.
Even so Mr Dixon walked free later that afternoon, completing a journey of 20 years and more than 100 pictures.
“Lesser men would’ve broken,” wrote Golf Digest. “With his mind and body in tact, Dixon hopefully has some good years ahead. Maybe he’ll even take up golf.