Valentino Dixon’s story could be a script for an episode of TV’s “Law and Order”:
- Arrested in 1991 for the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Torriano Jackson on a Buffalo street corner, Dixon is convicted and sentenced to 38 years to life;
- After the trial, another Buffalo man, Lamarr Scott, confesses multiple times to the killing. Dixon publicly professes his innocence, but nothing changes.
- Dixon, a gifted artist, is featured in an article in Golf Digest magazine for his pencil drawings of golf scenes. The article also details his quest to get his murder conviction overturned.
- Students from Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative study Dixon’s case and make a documentary about it, raising public awareness.
- After a wrongful conviction investigation by the office of Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn, Erie County Judge Susan Eagan accepts Scott’s confession and releases Dixon, who became a free man after 27 years behind bars.
All of this drama is real life for Dixon and his family. While his case has a happy ending, we don’t know how many innocent men and women are locked in prisons for crimes they did not commit. Those who are wrongfully incarcerated should be grateful for advocacy groups such as the Innocence Project, a national organization, and high-profile justice projects from colleges such as Georgetown and Northwestern.
Flynn, the district attorney, deserves credit for forming a wrongful convictions unit. The DA was interviewed for the Georgetown documentary and vowed to give a thorough and fair review to Dixon’s claims.
However, after Dixon’s conviction was overturned this week, Flynn remarked that Dixon is “not an innocent man.” Flynn said Dixon was an “up-and-coming drug dealer” in Buffalo at the time of Jackson’s killing, and that it was Dixon’s gun that Scott used in the shooting.
Whether or not Dixon was dealing drugs 27 years ago, he was locked up for murder, a crime of which he was innocent.
John Grisham, the novelist and attorney who sits on the board of the Innocence Project, wrote in the Los Angeles Times this year that the rate of wrongful convictions in the United States is estimated to be between 2 percent and 10 percent.
“That may sound low, but when applied to a prison population of 2.3 million, the numbers become staggering,” Grisham wrote.
Martin H. Tankleff, an adjunct professor at Georgetown who works with the Justice Initiative, said wrongful convictions are “an epidemic in this country.” Tankleff, who spent nearly 18 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction, noted there were 160 exonerations nationwide last year.
In Erie County we have seen some high-profile wrongful conviction cases before. Anthony Capozzi of Buffalo served almost 22 years in prison for rapes he did not commit. While he was in prison, the actual rapist, Altemio Sanchez, turned to murder, becoming known as the Bike Path Killer. Capozzi was exonerated in 2007.
Lynn DeJac Peters spent more than 13 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murdering her daughter, 13-year-old Crystallyn Girard. DeJac, who was released from prison in 2007 and exonerated in 2008, died of cancer in 2014.
Dixon said Wednesday he wants to help reform New York’s criminal justice system, which he says treats poor people unfairly.
“I’m going to dedicate my life to fighting mass incarceration,” he said. “The hard work is ahead of me.”