When he was just 21 years old, Valentino Dixon was sentenced to 39 years to life for murder. A murder he didn’t commit.
In spite of eyewitness testimony – and the fact that someone else had confessed to the crime – Valentino was convicted and sent to the notoriously rough Attica Correctional Facility in New York to serve out his sentence.
When he first got to prison, he thought it’d just be a matter of time before he was exonerated.
“I trusted that the system would get it right,” he says in the episode. “I trusted that everything would turn out right.”
But years passed, and he realized that his chances for another trial were slim. He began to lose hope.
One day, though, he received a life-changing gift: a set of colored pencils from his uncle Ronnie.
Valentino had always been a good artist. When he was a kid, a watercolor he’d painted won an award. Now, his uncle was urging him to use his talents for a different purpose – he said that if he reclaimed his life, he could reclaim his freedom. That he could draw himself out of prison.
So Valentino started drawing. And his creations were a hit, not just with the prisoners, but with the staff, too. One day, the warden asked him to draw the 12th hole of the Augusta National Golf Club.
One of Valentino's drawings of the 12th hole at Augusta, purchased by Michelle Obama as a Christmas gift for her husband Barack.
His drawing of the golf course was so good that inmates asked him to do more, giving him old copies of Golf Digest to use as references.
His golf courses weren’t just drawings. They became a source of hope and meaning for him and his fellow inmates. They were so important to him, in fact, that he submitted a letter to Golf Digest about his drawings. Here’s a passage from that letter:
The light in my cell isn't good for drawing, but I do have an outlet to plug in my Walkman. When I draw I listen to cassettes to block out the noise of the other prisoners, which can be relentless, even in honor block. I also work as a barber, do push-ups, run in place and I read.
Valentino, his letter and his artwork blew up. NBC wanted to interview him. The Golf Channel filmed a documentary about him. He began to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Valentino with Tiger Woods.
VALENTINO DIXON: So, before I could even start a drawing, I have to pick out the colors. The color scheme is so important before I start a drawing.
STEPHANIE FOO: Yeah.
STEPHANIE FOO: Valentino Dixon is telling me about his art studio in Buffalo. It’s full of drawings. Verdant landscapes – striking depictions of rolling hills, shimmering ponds, rich sunsets.
VALENTINO DIXON: I put some burgundies, some pinks, some yellow. I got the reflection from the sky into the water. I got this nice bridge with these beautiful palm trees.
STEPHANIE FOO: Valentino is excited about the future, and he should be. Collectors have started buying his work. And prices for his art are going up. But Valentino still works in his grandmother’s basement, where he also lives. It’s humble. But anything would be better than where he used to draw.
VALENTINO DIXON: I got about 100 drawings that I'm surrounded by that I drew in prison.
STEPHANIE FOO: His last studio was a prison cell.
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Home. Made., an original podcast by Rocket Mortgage® about the meaning of homes and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo. In this episode, an artist who discovered his talent behind bars.
STEPHANIE FOO: On June 12, 1992, Valentino Dixon was convicted of a crime he did not commit. The justice system is now clear on this fact. But back then, it didn’t look so good for Valentino. It all started in the summer of ‘91. He was at a big party in the parking lot of Louie’s Red Hots, a hot dog joint in East Buffalo, when a fight broke out.
VALENTINO DIXON: I didn't take it too serious, because this type of stuff happened all the time in the inner city. Two guys are arguing over a girl, they both were dating the same girl.
STEPHANIE FOO: Valentino was in a bodega grabbing a drink when he heard shots. And then, he did what he was trained to do growing up in East Buffalo – he hopped in his car and skidded away. But the next day, cops pulled Valentino over, arrested him and took him in for questioning.
VALENTINO DIXON: Well, the thing is, is this: There's over 90 people that were there, how do you get this wrong? I felt in my heart that I'm going to be cleared of this. How can it not get cleared up?
STEPHANIE FOO: Valentino was a small-time drug dealer, and he ran with a rough crowd, but he wasn’t a murderer. Eight witnesses came forward to say as much within 48 hours. Then, the killer himself came in and gave a taped confession. But still, without a murder weapon, without evidence or a motive, Valentino’s sentence was 39 years to life. He was only 21 years old.
VALENTINO DIXON: I didn't pay that sentence no mind. There's no way that I'm going to die in prison for something I didn't do.
STEPHANIE FOO: So, you weren't even that anxious?
VALENTINO DIXON: I trusted that the system would get it right. I trusted that everything would turn out right.
STEPHANIE FOO: It was too much to comprehend or accept. Valentino was going to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Probably for the rest of his life. And he wasn’t going to just any prison. He was going to Attica. One of the worst in the country. Guards at other prisons threaten to send their prisoners to Attica when they get out of line. Inmates there rioted in the ‘70s due to inhumane conditions.
VALENTINO DIXON: Uh, it's a 6x8 prison cell. There's a thin 2-inch mattress on a steel slab of metal. The cell is filthy, it smells like urine. And at nighttime, you have mice running all around, and roaches.
STEPHANIE FOO: Yeah. This is definitely not a four-star hotel.
VALENTINO DIXON: It's not even two stars.
STEPHANIE FOO: At first Valentino thought he’d for sure win the appeal, but he was never granted a new trial. The weeks stretched into months. He needed to learn how to survive.
VALENTINO DIXON: And I had older guys that I had met that were talking to me about what I needed to do.
STEPHANIE FOO: What was the best advice that one of those guys gave you?
VALENTINO DIXON: The best advice was to not gamble, not borrow anything from anybody, mind your own business, and be careful who you befriend in the penitentiary.
STEPHANIE FOO: Valentino also needed to learn how to carve out his own space in order to stay sane. One of the only things prisoners have control over is their cells. They call their cells their houses. And experts say being able to decorate it the way you want to, to make it feel like a home as much as humanly possible, that’s a vital part of survival in prison. Valentino hung matching colored towels on his lockers and desk and painted the walls white.
VALENTINO DIXON: And I accessorized. That's what we call accessorizing in prison. And on my walls, I had family photos. But sometimes I would lay in bed at night and say how beautiful my cell looked.
STEPHANIE FOO: He adjusted to prison life eventually. But he never got complacent. He knew he couldn’t just languish in there, waiting.
VALENTINO DIXON: I worked pretty hard to get out the whole time I was there. I'm a fighter, man. I'm going to be creative, I'm going to teach myself, I'm going to read. Before I left prison, I had read a little over 600 books.
STEPHANIE FOO: Novels, to self-help books, business books. Anything educational, or legal, that could in some way help with his release. And he took college courses. But after 7 years, Valentino’s spirit began to flag. He now understood that he needed new evidence in order to get a retrial. That was something he didn’t have. Reality started to set in. He was having trouble finding the one thing he really needed to survive: Hope. He saw what happened when you ran out of that resource, had friends who killed themselves because they couldn’t envision a future. But then someone sent him a life changing gift. It was a set of colored pencils and a pad of drawing paper from his uncle Ronnie.
VALENTINO DIXON: You know, he says, "You got to start drawing." I said, "Ah, I don't think so."
STEPHANIE FOO: As a kid Valentino loved to draw. And he was so good at it that his teacher wanted to enter him into the Our Best art competition.
VALENTINO DIXON: My favorite childhood memory is when I won Our Best, I believe I was 10 years old at the time, the best artists in the whole region of New York State.
STEPHANIE FOO: Wow. And what was the picture, do you remember?
VALENTINO DIXON: I did a watercolor. It was a picture of kids playing in a park.
STEPHANIE FOO: Do you remember what you felt like when you won that award?
VALENTINO DIXON: Well, I felt a sense of achievement. And they gave me a scholarship to go to an art school, a summer school program in Buffalo.
STEPHANIE FOO: But Valentino told his uncle all of that was in the past.
VALENTINO DIXON: And he says, "Hey, you may have to draw yourself out of prison." I'm like, "What the hell are you talking about, draw myself out of prison? How's that going to happen?" And he says, "If you can reclaim your life, you can reclaim your freedom." And I was like, "Oh, whatever."
STEPHANIE FOO: Valentino just laughed at him. Freedom. What a joke.
VALENTINO DIXON: About a month later, I think, after we had that conversation, it resonated in my brain, freedom, freedom, I can draw myself. So, I took a chance and I drew a rose, and all the other inmates were like, "You know how to draw?" I said, "Yeah, I used to draw a little bit." They said, "Oh wow, you're really good. Oh, wow."
STEPHANIE FOO: In a dark place where nothing grows, this might as well have been a real rose. Encouraged by the other inmates, Valentino started drawing every day. Images out of old National Geographics. Animals, plants, people, anything. He would put on his headphones, and as he drew, he would imagine himself on the outside, traveling to France, Spain, anywhere other than Attica.
VALENTINO DIXON: I'm wherever I wanna be. I’m living this fantasy.
STEPHANIE FOO: What music were you listening to when you're thinking of all these thoughts and drawing?
VALENTINO DIXON: Well, OK. Elton John's “Rocket Man.”
STEPHANIE FOO: That's a good one.
VALENTINO DIXON: Yeah. “I'm going to be high as a kite by then,” and he wants to leave this earth. He wants to go to another planet. He can accomplish what he needs to accomplish, because nobody can stop him. He's a rocket man.
STEPHANIE FOO: Drawing was meditative. It put him in a state of flow. Allowed him to think.
VALENTINO DIXON: Yes, definitely. So it wasn't just drawing the pictures. That's one thing. Of course, it's therapeutic, but it also allowed me to grow and to transform myself. So, now I'm upset with myself. Why the hell you start selling drugs? What is wrong with you? If you weren't selling drugs, none of this wouldn't have happened. So, now you got to make your life right. You got to get yourself together totally. You're innocent of this crime, but you got to make something of yourself with this artwork.
STEPHANIE FOO: Valentino started drawing for 10 hours a day. And over time, he became known as the resident artist. Other inmates asked him for pictures to decorate their own cells, their own houses. And he helped them in other ways, too. Valentino’s friends and family printed the roses he drew on greeting cards. He created a website where people could buy them. And he used some of the money he earned to pay off his fellow inmates’ debts. But then, Valentino got another request for art. A life changing one. This time it wasn’t from a fellow inmate. A warden was leaving Attica, and he wanted a going away gift. He golfed, so he asked Valentino to draw him a picture of the legendary 12th hole at Augusta, where the Masters tournament is played. They call the hole the Golden Bell. This drawing was different than his other ones. It was really complex, it required more colors … it was also a risk.
VALENTINO DIXON: I thought they were going to be like, "What the hell are you drawing golf courses for?" Yeah. I didn't know if they was going to turn on me. What I'm drawing a golf course for a warden for? That thing could go bad for you in there.
STEPHANIE FOO: Yeah.
VALENTINO DIXON: The truth of the matter is, it didn't. They loved it.
STEPHANIE FOO: Why do you think everyone loved the golf courses so much?
VALENTINO DIXON: I think it was the colors. The greens, the peacefulness of the golf course. I think that did it. 90% of these guys never golfed before. Most of these guys come from the same world that I came from. There's nobody golfing in this world. This is not a privileged lifestyle we live.
STEPHANIE FOO: The inmates didn’t pick on him. Instead, they wanted more golf courses. One of them had a stack of Golf Digests and gave them to Valentino to use as references. The drawings are what you might expect if Van Gogh stopped painting sunflowers and took up golf courses. With just colored pencils, Valentino created intricately detailed, movie poster-sized works, with waving fields of grass, trees and ponds. Everything is supersaturated, the colors making the scenery vivid, almost supernaturally beautiful. But unlike Van Gogh’s landscapes and flowers, each of Valentino’s drawings is one hole of golf.
VALENTINO DIXON: Each time I completed a golf course, it did something for all of us.
STEPHANIE FOO: What did it do for all of you?
VALENTINO DIXON: Well, what it did was it gave us hope. Even if it was fantasy hope. Even if it’s not going to happen. This is not a drawing. We’re in this picture here. You need fantasy in prison in order to survive. You need to be told a lie. Even if your lawyer know he's not going to get you out of prison, just lie to me and say, "Hey, you're coming home in a couple of years.” And this is what keeps you going from day to day, from month to month, year to year. But at the end of the day, peace is what most of us strive for, all of us strive for in this life and that's what the golf drawings brought. It brought a sense of peace.
STEPHANIE FOO: From 2010 to 2012, Valentino drew 130 golf courses, always using the images from Golf Digest. While looking for new courses to draw, he came across a column in the magazine called “Golf Saved My Life.” The letters were mainly from white-collar professionals, who had turned to golf in difficult times, like a breakup or divorce, health issues, career problems. Valentino thought about his own life and what drawing golf courses had meant for him. And so he decided to submit his own letter. Here’s a passage from it:
VALENTINO DIXON: “The light in my cell isn't good for drawing, but I do have an outlet to plug in my Walkman. When I draw I listen to cassettes to block out the noise of the other prisoners, which can be relentless, even in honor block. I also work as a barber, do push-ups, run in place and I read.”
STEPHANIE FOO: Golf Digest loved it. They ran it 6 months later and the story blew up.
VALENTINO DIXON: “As Viktor E. Frankl said, you have to find meaning in your suffering. To that, thank God for putting me here to draw golf courses. Maybe one day I'll play.”
STEPHANIE FOO: All of a sudden Valentino was a star at the pen. NBC asked for a feature interview. The Golf Channel visited him to film a documentary.
VALENTINO DIXON: Golf Channel has never been inside a prison. And when the guards pulled up that morning, I could hear them talking, "What's going on?" But after that day, nearly the whole prison knew about the golf drawings.
STEPHANIE FOO: So, how did it feel to finally have this attention?
VALENTINO DIXON: It was a sense of relief. It made me feel like finally, justice is going to be served. Finally, I get some redemption here. The world is learning about Valentino Dixon's wrongful conviction.
STEPHANIE FOO: Valentino was savvy. He sent 50 copies of the Golf Digest issue to lawyers around the country. He heard back from famous ones like Johnnie Cochran, O.J. Simpson’s lawyer. After 20 years in prison, Valentino was sure this was his chance. But in the end, nothing came of it. He went from the highs of being a media darling, back to drawing in his cell.
VALENTINO DIXON: Freedom didn't come. Freedom didn't come, but it was a start.
STEPHANIE FOO: That start didn’t pay off for a long time.
STEPHANIE FOO: Valentino had been in jail for close to 27 years. Out of the blue, a lawyer wrote to him. He’d read the Golf Digest article when he was just a young paralegal, but now he was a professor at Georgetown University. He told Valentino that a few of his students wanted to take on his case. So the students started digging. With Valentino’s help. He knew every page, filing and motion. But the real break came when they asked the DA who had tried Valentino about tests that had been done on his clothing for gunpowder residue.
VALENTINO DIXON: He’s asked this question, and he casually states, "Oh yeah well we tested everything and it came back negative." Oh so you’re gonna admit to that? Why didn't you turn over the results? And this is where the law comes in.
STEPHANIE FOO: This was the evidence Valentino needed for a retrial. If a prosecutor withholds any document pertaining to a criminal case or an investigation, then it's called a Brady violation and the conviction must be reversed. This discovery represented a total miscarriage of justice. The current DA had no choice but to go back to court to drop Valentino’s case. It took 7 weeks, but on September 19, 2018, the judge ruled in his favor.
VALENTINO DIXON: The judge says, "Take the handcuffs off of him." The prison guard says, "No." The prison guard said, "We need to take him back to the prison and process him out at the prison." The judge gets upset. She gets a court order from the State Capitol that took 2 hours to get faxed to her office.
STEPHANIE FOO: Wow. I mean, it's just a failure at every single step of the process.
VALENTINO DIXON: But this is our justice system. That's just how it go.
STEPHANIE FOO: But finally, Valentino was going home. He walked outside the courthouse into a flurry of flashing cameras towards his family. In the pictures from that day, he is wearing jeans and a black T-shirt, and he looks amazing, like a celebrity. He has this big, handsome smile that makes him look so much younger than his 48 years.
STEPHANIE FOO: Was it overwhelming?
VALENTINO DIXON: Yeah. For about 10 minutes, I believe it was overwhelming. But after that my spirit calmed down and I told myself, "You're going to eat a great meal tonight and you're going to sleep better than you have ever slept in 27 years and tomorrow you got to get started. You got to go to work. It's time to go to work now."
STEPHANIE FOO: So what did you eat? And did you sleep well?
VALENTINO DIXON: I went to Red Lobster because I never had lobster before. I thought I was eating some great lobster. But it was good for that night until I started going to other restaurants.
STEPHANIE FOO: So you did like lobster?
VALENTINO DIXON: Yeah I had some lobster, some shrimp. And I came home to my mom's house and slept good, but then I had to hurry up and get up because The Today Show wanted me on there, so I had 5 hours of sleep that night.
STEPHANIE FOO: So you were working immediately.
VALENTINO DIXON: Right away. I must've did about 11 interviews.
STEPHANIE FOO: Valentino had been in prison since 1992. For most ex-cons, adjusting to life on the outside can be difficult. But Valentino had been preparing for this for a long time.
VALENTINO DIXON: It wasn't difficult at all because I had already started adjusting to the outside world while I was in prison. The last 20 years I was out here with those in the free world. I refused to be stuck in a prison. Yeah my body was there, but my mind was on the outside. My mind was navigating through life.
STEPHANIE FOO: Still, the world he returned to had changed, a lot. Valentino was about to experience a bunch of firsts.
VALENTINO DIXON: I wanted an iPhone and I'm going to use this phone to run my business. That's what I did.
STEPHANIE FOO: Was it hard to get used to your iPhone?
VALENTINO DIXON: The phone was my biggest challenge. Nothing else. For the first couple months, I want to take it and sling it down the street somewhere.
STEPHANIE FOO: But he didn’t let that stop him. Valentino sat for five hours a day until he figured it out. And he kept drawing. Pebble Beach, Sawgrass, courses in Dubai, Ireland, and Scotland. Eventually, Golf Digest sponsored Valentino’s first art show in Manhattan. The gallery tried to get him to lower his prices; they told him he wouldn’t sell anything. But he kept his prices high. And he sold 11 works on opening day. But it was another sale that got everyone’s attention. Michelle Obama bought a drawing of the Golden Bell, the 12th hole at Augusta, as a Christmas present for her husband. The same hole Valentino first drew for the warden in Attica.
VALENTINO DIXON: Ask me, was I excited.
STEPHANIE FOO: Were you excited?
VALENTINO DIXON: That might have been more exciting than the day I got released.
STEPHANIE FOO: I mean, did you get to talk to her?
VALENTINO DIXON: I didn't get to talk to her. But Barack Obama sent me a personal video thanking me for the golf art.
STEPHANIE FOO: Wow.
VALENTINO DIXON: Yeah.
STEPHANIE FOO: And then, Golf Digest offered to fly Valentino to his first golf course. He’d placed himself on these greens, surrounded by rolling hills, for ages in prison. But now, it was time to see if the real thing would live up to his imagination.
VALENTINO DIXON: That part of it was surreal. No matter how intricately you put something or draw something or visualize it, seeing it in person is a whole different level of visibility. I know these trees from a magazine. Five years later, I'm actually touching the tree that I drew four or five times. I'm sitting on the wooden fence at Pebble Beach. We're related now, me and this fence that I've drawn. Sometimes in order to create something magical, you have to become one with it. You have to become one with the subject matter.
STEPHANIE FOO: It wasn’t just beautiful. Even though he’d never been there, it was already home. It’s a funny thing, though – one of the things that was different about the real version? Golf is really hard.
VALENTINO DIXON: I'm a horrible golfer. My swing is atrocious. You should see it on video. I mean, they got video of this stuff. It's a bloopers type thing. But that's OK. Because I have fun. The golfer can't draw the pictures that I draw and I can't golf the way the golfer can golf. So we just all stay in our own lane.
STEPHANIE FOO: Right away upon release, Valentino was living a full life. He even met Tiger Woods, but more than that he was back at home, in Buffalo. And he moved into his grandmother’s house, in her basement.
VALENTINO DIXON: Yeah. So I don't care if I'm living in a basement or in a small room or in an attic or in a mansion. I'm not complaining. This is the best life on the planet for me, because I knew where I was.
STEPHANIE FOO: But art is no longer the meditation it used to be, the escape into fantasy. Art is what happens now in between other parts of Valentino’s life.
VALENTINO DIXON: I got all of these phone calls I have to make, emails I got to respond to, check in on my 93-year-old grandmother. I wanted her last days to be with me, checking in on her three, four times a day, making sure she's all right. Put a smile on her face. I'm still going to find time to sit down and put the time in to draw these pictures. I'm challenging myself all over again to have that discipline that I had inside the prison cell.
STEPHANIE FOO: But when you're doing that, do you still put on the headphones and do you still escape to that place? Does it feel the same as you're drawing or does it feel different?
VALENTINO DIXON: No, I don't. That's the one thing, I haven't been able to put my headphones on and listen to music because I'm making phone calls while I draw.
STEPHANIE FOO: Before you were dreaming, now you're in the reality.
VALENTINO DIXON: Yeah. Now I'm in the reality. It’s a good reality.
STEPHANIE FOO: Valentino is constantly hustling now. But it’s not all about becoming a famous artist. He’s writing a book. He wants his own show where he draws and talks with people. He has a foundation that works on prison and sentencing reform. And every day, he takes calls from several of his old prison buddies and writes them letters.
VALENTINO DIXON: I got guys calling me from prison every day, at least seven of them call me every other day. Some guys they need somebody to just say hi to them. That everything's going to work out. And they may just want to hear about my latest activities and what I'm doing. That gives them hope. Some guys, they might need a full package: I got to talk this guy down. I have to think of the right words that I know that can penetrate their minds and their souls and give them the hope that they don't have inside of them.
STEPHANIE FOO: And what's the advice that works the most for them, you think?
VALENTINO DIXON: The advice that works in most of them is that you have options. Number one, you come from the inner city, you made some bad choices. It's not how you start; it's how you finish.
STEPHANIE FOO: That’s the whole reason he started drawing those golf courses in the first place. To give people hope. The belief that they might one day walk onto a field of green. Now, he describes it for other prisoners, the soft pad of the grass underneath his feet, the smell of the flowers. He’s working so that they can join him there.
VALENTINO DIXON: I've only been out 2 years and 6 months. I'm just now getting started, Stephanie.
STEPHANIE FOO: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER: Equal housing lender licensed in all 50 states. NMLSconsumeraccess.org #3030
Home. Made. Podcast
Home. Made. is a new podcast from Rocket Mortgage® hosted by Stephanie Foo. Inside every home, there’s a story.Learn More