Valentino Dixon stepped back into the City of Buffalo as a free man yesterday after spending 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. It happened with the help of a man and his students working to fight injustice.
Martin Tankleff is no stranger to injustice. He’s made it his personal mission to help get wrongful convictions overturned because he’s been through the experience himself.
“In 1990, I was wrongfully convicted of the murder of my parents,” Tankleff explained. “I served almost 18 years in prison. When my convictions were reversed, dismissed, the true perpetrators were identified. Some of them remain free. Some of them have been deceased.”
Tankleff got through that process with the help of childhood friend Marc Howard. Howard enrolled in law school to help fight for Tankleff and get him out of prison. After succeeding, they joined forces and began teaching others about wrongful conviction.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Tankleff. “My life was saved from people getting involved. And I said to Mark, and Mark and I agreed that we couldn’t just turn our backs. We had to pay it forward.”
This past spring, Howard and Tankleff co-taught a class at Georgetown University in which 16 students reinvestigated four cases of wrongful conviction. Among them was Valentino Dixon, the Buffalo man convicted of murdering 17 year old Torriano Jackson during a street fight in August of 1991.
“Mister Dixon was convicted on the testimony of three witnesses,” said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn. “There was no physical evidence at all that was part of the trial.”
That testimony evidence was given by three men, including two who were victims and survived the shooting.
Dixon maintained his innocence in the murder all along. Shortly after the shooting, another man named Lamarr Scott confessed to it. But Scott recanted during Dixon’s trial and Dixon was sentenced to 39 years behind bars.
Tankleff and Howard’s students met with Dixon, talked to the lawyers who worked both sides of his trial, interviewed witnesses, and spoke with Dixon’s family. Multiple people told them Scott confessed to them and that Dixon was not the murderer.
The students’ evidence was shared with Dixon’s lawyer and presented to Flynn’s office as part of a 440 motion to overturn the conviction. The students also compiled their work into a short documentary.
On Wednesday, after Scott plead guilty to the murder in court, Dixon’s motion was accepted. Erie County Judge Susan Eagan said, “Mr. Dixon, given the facts and circumstances of this case and the people’s extensive investigation and their position with regard to the motion, I will grant your motion to vacate your convictions for murder in the second degree, attempted murder in the second degree, and assault in the 3rd degree.”
Dixon’s fourth charge of criminal possession of the weapon used to kill Jackson was not overturned, but the time he would have served for it already passed.
“You are eligible for release today,” said Eagan, followed by an eruption of clapping and crying from Dixon’s family and friends.
French exchange student Julie Fragonas worked on Dixon’s case at Georgetown. She said hearing the cries and clapping in the courtroom was one of the high points of her academic career. But she said one of the greatest challenges in working the case was that not many people are interested in wrongful convictions and prison reform.
“Just getting everyone’s attention – especially after a crime that happened 28 years ago, getting witnesses to testify, everyone to get involved and solve this injustice – that was one of the biggest challenges we faced,” said Fragonas.
The documentary put together by Fragonas and her classmates was one of four produced as part of a series. The subjects of the other three – Tim Wright, John Moss, and Kenneth Bond-El – are still awaiting exoneration.
For Tankleff, the work isn’t over. He encourages people to get involved with Georgetown’s Prisons and Injustice Initiative.
“Last year I think there was about 160 exonerations nationally,” said Tankleff. “And if you think about that, that’s about one person every two and a half days. And while we incarcerate the innocent person, the guilty people remain free to commit additional crimes which victimize our communities, which has to stop.”
Valentino Dixon – now a free man – says his work isn’t over either. As he stood on the steps of the courthouse changed out of his prison greens and into plainclothes, he told family friends and reporters that he would work to help others find justice, too.
You can find out more about the Georgetown series and the upcoming documentary on the class’ work here.