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With the help of his artwork, murder convict seeks freedom

Even now, after 26 years behind bars, Valentino Dixon is hopeful, more so than ever before, that "God's plan" for him will soon lead to freedom.

Dixon's story is well known and not just here in his hometown of Buffalo, but across the country. He sits in Wende Correctional Facility, serving 38 years to life for a murder he claims he didn't commit.

His story is also about the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts student who returned to one of his first passions while in prison, and how his artwork brought a spotlight to the allegations that he was wrongfully convicted.

More than two decades after 17-year-old Torriano Jackson was shot to death near East Delavan and Bailey avenues, Dixon is asking the courts to overturn his murder conviction. And he is doing it with the help of a prominent sports magazine and a documentary by three Georgetown law students.

"It opened up the door to introducing new evidence," Dixon said of the national spotlight on his case. "At the end of the day, everyone deserves a fair trial, and I didn't get a fair trial."

It's no secret that Dixon's artwork – he's known for his colored pencil drawings of landscapes and golf courses – has helped fuel public interest in his story. Golf Digest first took up his cause in 2012 and then wrote about him again last year.

"This month marks a dismal anniversary," the magazine said of the five years between stories on Dixon's continued imprisonment.

The legal effort to free Dixon hinges on statements and information he believes are significant enough to vacate his conviction.

First and foremost, he will tell you, is the confession of another man. Lamarr Scott, who is currently in prison for a different shooting, has repeatedly claimed responsibility for Jackson's murder.

He did so at the time of the shooting when he confessed on camera to a local TV reporter and and he did again, 26 years later, in an interview for the documentary done in connection with Georgetown's Prisons and Justice Initiative.

"Many, many times, he's admitted what he did," said Malcolm Plumber, a private investigator from Syracuse.

Valentino Dixon is pictured at Attica Correctional Facility on Thursday, May 13, 2004. (Harry Scull Jr/News file photo)

Plumber, now in his 80s, met Dixon nine years ago at Attica Correctional Facility and came away convinced of his innocence. He also agreed to work pro bono on his case.

Today, the two are like father and son, Dixon says, and they often joke that Plumber needs to stay alive long enough to see Dixon freed.

"The criminal justice system doesn't always work," Plumber said of his friend.

With his daughter, Roxanne, Plumber set out to prove that Scott, not Dixon, fired the shots that killed Jackson and wounded three others that summer night in August of 1991.

Years later, he points to Scott's numerous confessions, including one to The Buffalo News in 2004.

"They jumped out of a yellow Dodge Shadow and opened fire on me and my friends," Scott said at the time. "I shot back in self-defense, yes. After that I ran down the street, and I threw the gun. I went home. That was it."

"Who shot and killed Torriano Jackson?" asked former News reporter Anthony Cardinale.

"I did," Scott answered.

Cardinale, now an author and playwright, still remembers Dixon's trial and the six witnesses who were prepared to testify that Dixon wasn't the killer. He said the prosecution threatened each of them with perjury, and none of them ever took the stand.

"Whether he was guilty or not, he deserved a fair trial," Cardinale said. "By the time it was over, I was disillusioned with the system."

It is true that Scott's confessions span more than two decades, but it is also true his story changed on one occasion. He was testifying before a grand jury appearance shortly after the murder and recanted his confession.

Dixon says the change of heart was due to the prosecution's threat of perjury charges if Scott didn't change his story.

In Dixon's eyes, even more important than Scott's newest confession in the Georgetown documentary, is the allegation that key evidence was withheld by prosecutors during the trial.

In his court papers, he says investigators conducted forensic testing for gun residue but found none on his clothes or in his car. He also claims the Erie County District Attorney's Office purposely withheld that evidence.

"The evidence was always there," Dixon said during a telephone interview from prison. "And I believe it's now the strongest evidence we have."

To hear Dixon talk, the gun residue results confirm what he and a lot of others already knew: He didn't fire a gun that night. Investigators said more than 20 shots were fired during the incident.

"The gun residue results indicate he probably wasn't the guy who fired all those shots that night," said Donald M. Thompson, Dixon's defense attorney.

Christopher J. Belling, the chief prosecutor at Dixon's murder trial, said he has no recollection of whether forensic testing was done but, even if it was, gun residue tests were viewed as unreliable at the time.

He also thinks it's a "huge leap" to think that gun residue results alone and independent of any other evidence can prove anyone's innocence.

"I'm comfortable with the outcome," Belling said of Dixon's murder conviction.

The allegations of undisclosed evidence are at the center of Dixon's appeal to Erie County Judge Sheila A. DiTullio and current District Attorney John J. Flynn.

Flynn, who created a wrongful conviction unit after being elected, was interviewed for the Georgetown documentary and promised a thorough and fair review of Dixon's claims.

"As a human being, when you read through this case, you say to yourself, obviously, this doesn't seem right," the district attorney said at the time.

Flynn declined to comment for this story, but a spokeswoman said Dixon's motion to vacate his conviction is under review.

Dixon's family sees Flynn's public comments as an indication that he might see the case differently than others. Dixon's previous efforts to win freedom included an unsuccessful application for a pardon and an earlier motion to vacate his conviction that also failed.

Despite the setbacks, Dixon's mother said her son is convinced this latest legal effort is different.

Valentino Dixon paints golf scenes that caught the attention of Golf Digest. The magazine did a story about his drawings from prison. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"He has a lot of faith," said Barbara Dixon."His artwork also plays a big part in it. It gives him hope."

Dixon said she still remembers the first time she noticed her son's talent for drawing. He was sitting at the kitchen table drawing comics on a piece of paper. At first, she thought he was tracing from the newspaper but then realized he was drawing freehand. He was 4 years old at the time.

"It kind of scared me a bit," she said with a laugh.

Even while in prison, Dixon's colored pencil drawings, described as abstract designs full of vibrant colors and surrealism, are for sale on the web. His reputation for landscapes and flowers, especially golf courses, stems from an initial drawing of the 12th hole at Augusta National Golf Course, home of the Masters.

Dixon says the drawing was requested by the former superintendent at Attica.

When he first went to prison, Dixon had a daughter, less than a year old at the time. Today, she's in Ohio, the mother of twin girls, also almost one, and she's waiting anxiously for the day the father she never really knew comes home.

"I'm very hopeful," Valentina Dixon said of her father's appeal. "It would be nice to do more than Christmas or summer break visits to see him."

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