A Buffalo man who spent 27 years in prison on a wrongful conviction has been exonerated. Valentino Dixon was released Wednesday.
The basement courtroom of the Erie County courthouse erupted with cheers and clapping on Wednesday morning when Judge Susan Eagan said to Valentino Dixon, “You are eligible for release today.”
They were words that Dixon and his family waited 27 years to hear.
In 1991, Dixon was an “up-and-coming drug dealer” according to current Erie County District Attorney John Flynn. Dixon and his unofficial bodyguard Lamarr Scott were involved in a street fight during the early morning hours of August 10 that left Torriano Jackson, 17, dead and two other men wounded by automatic gunfire.
Scott confessed to the shooting on multiple occasions, but Dixon was convicted of murder, attempted murder, assault, and criminal possession of a weapon based on the testimony of three witnesses during his trial – two of whom were victims of the shooting. He was sentenced to 39 years in prison at the time.
Over the years between then and now, Dixon and his attorneys filed requests at the state and federal level to have his conviction overturned. They weren’t successful until now.
On Wednesday morning, Lamarr Scott pleaded guilty in court to manslaughter and two counts of assault for the 1991 shooting. He waived his right to a grand jury trail and any appeal of the judge’s decision, finally making his confession official. He’ll be sentenced for the crimes this October.
Immediately following Scott’s hearing, Dixon was brought into the courtroom and the judge overturned three of his four original charges. Because the gun used in the shooting was his, the criminal possession of a weapon charge remained. But since he has already served more than the maximum sentence for such a crime, he faces no further penalty for it and became a free man.
Dixon’s daughter, Valentina, was four months old when her father went to prison. Outside the courtroom, she told reporters her father’s release gives them an opportunity for a new life, and she already has plans for it.
“We’re definitely going to go shopping and go an explore life,” she said. “I can’t wait to get him a cell phone and teach him how to Snapchat.”
Dixon’s mother, Barbara, said faith kept her motivated during her son’s incarceration. She said he stayed motivated by painting and drawing – a natural talent he had since childhood.
“He said it gave him peace,” said Barbara Dixon.
Her son’s depictions of golf courses became well known over the years he spent behind bars.
While Dixon’s release was being immediately celebrated by family and friends, Flynn’s response was less glowing during a press conference held after the hearing. He said the decision to overturn three of the four convictions was the right one, but reminded reporters that the fourth still stands.
“Don't be misguided in that at all, " Flynn said. "Mr. Dixon is innocent of shooting and of murder, for what he was found guilty of, but Mr. Dixon brought the gun to the fight. It was Mr. Dixon's gun."
Flynn continued the strong language, saying the focus should be on Jackson, the "true victim" who "is not getting out of the grave."
"If Mr. Dixon had told the truth about what happened 27 years ago, we wouldn't be here today probably," said Flynn.
When Dixon stepped out the front doors of the courthouse cheers broke out once again. Dixon immediately hugged his daughter and his mother. Friends and family swarmed in with congratulations.
“How does it feel, Tino?” shouted family friend and former Erie County Legislator Betty-Jean Grant.
“It feels great,” said Dixon.
“The fight doesn’t stop now,” continued Dixon. “I have a bigger fight.”
Dixon criticized New York’s sentencing laws, said mass incarceration needs to stop, and called for a solution to render justice for the poor.
He said the hard work is ahead of him.