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Drawn to art, Valentino Dixon pencils a world he has never seen

In the tight confines of a tiny Attica prison cell, Valentino A. Dixon has created an art studio in which he sketches a world he has never set foot in.

It is one in which golfers saunter about on lush green fairways and feast their eyes upon faraway mountains, shimmering lakes and swaying palm trees -- all imagined golf courses.

The 42-year-old Dixon -- serving 39 years to life for a fatal 1991 Buffalo shooting -- will not be teeing up anytime soon.

But the world he has created, thanks to a nurturing warden at the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility, has in some ways already set him free.

And the outside world is getting a chance to see his work, which is featured in the July issue of Golf Digest, already on magazine stands. The publication devotes a four-page spread to Dixon's artistry and a story on what he says has been nearly 21 years of wrongful imprisonment.

Such a soapbox to proclaim his innocence would not be possible if not for the colored-pencil sketches driving his newfound celebrity.

"When he was small, his father used to take him fishing all the time, and Valentino says that when he draws these golf course settings, he feels the same inner peace he felt when he was fishing," said Barbara Dixon, his 63-year-old mother.

She hopes that with his artwork now showcased in Golf Digest, which sells in the United States and numerous other countries, new attention will be focused on her son's case.

Over the years, The Buffalo News has told and retold Dixon's story, even visiting him several years ago at Attica. He was convicted of slaying 17-year-old Torriano Jackson at 1:30 a.m. Aug. 10, 1991, in a machine gun shooting at the intersection of East Delavan and Bailey avenues.

Lamarr Scott told authorities Dixon was the shooter, but he later recanted his story and admitted that he killed Jackson. Scott is serving a lengthy sentence at Attica for another shooting.

Several eyewitnesses have also changed their stories and say Dixon was not the shooter, his mother said.

But three appeals in state and federal courts have failed to overturn Dixon's conviction.

"There will be another appeal," Barbara Dixon said. "I want [to] keep it private for now on what grounds it will be filed, but I will say the Exoneration Initiative in New York City has been looking at my son's case for almost two years."

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III and senior prosecutor Christopher J. Belling say the case was tried and then retried over the issue of two witnesses perjuring themselves. Each trial ended in convictions.

"This was an incredibly violent crime. Dixon stood above the victim and emptied the machine gun," Sedita said.

In sharp contrast to the disputed events of that violent night, Dixon spends his days drawing golf course settings as he listens to music coming from the earbuds of his portable cassette player and radio.

"That's how he blocks out the noise of the other inmates," his mother said, adding that Dixon also works as a prison barber.

His drawings, some 130 of them, often include the trimmed aprons leading to the closely cropped putting greens; their pins and flags, some casting narrow lines of shadow; the expected sand traps; and nearby water hazards.

That, however, is just the beginning.

Soft pastels of scenery invite the viewer to see another world within the world of golf -- nature.

There is an unmistakable sense of tranquility.

"I go and pick up his drawings every two months from the prison, and when I look at them I feel amazed and proud. This is not the artwork of a murderer," his mother said.

In the Golf Digest piece, Dixon tells of how a former warden, James Conway, stopped by his cell one day and gave him a photograph of the 12th hole at Augusta National Golf Club -- home of the Master's -- and asked Dixon to draw it for him.

Conway, who has since retired, was well aware of Dixon's artistic abilities. For years, the inmate drew pictures of people, animals and scenery, often inspired by images he saw in National Geographic magazine.

"I'm so proud that my drawing is now hanging in the warden's house," his mother recalled Dixon saying.

She also said Conway sometimes stopped by her son's cell in the honor block to ask about his court appeals.

Dixon is the first to admit he was far from an upstanding citizen when Buffalo homicide detectives charged him with second-degree murder. He openly admits he fell into the ways of the street after dropping out of Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts.

He started selling drugs and dressing like a gangster, with gold chains draped around his neck and wrists. He also carried a gun in his car for protection, Dixon says, but he insists he never shot anyone.

Authorities have said that at the time of the deadly shooting, Dixon was free on $10,000 bail for two other shootings.

His mother says he has taken a polygraph test in prison and when he answered the question "Did you shoot Torriano Jackson?" he denied it and passed the lie detector examination.

But polygraph results are inadmissible in court. So Dixon continues to sketch scenes of golf courses, often inspired by snapshots of actual courses but embellished by his own inspirations, which might include distant mountains or cactuses and deserts.

Dixon has told his mother that he dreams of one day playing a round of golf on a real course for what would be the first time in his life.

"I believe in my soul that will happen," his mother says.