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Wrongful conviction reversed—thanks to Golf Digest


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Wrongful conviction reversed—thanks to Golf Digest

  • In Washington State, it’s nearly impossible to prosecute police killings

  • The incalculable costs of mass incarceration

  • The Appeal Podcast Episode 15: On the ground in Dallas’s high stakes DA race

  • Democratic New Jersey sheriff confirms fears about law enforcement with racist remarks

  • Massachusetts prosecutor who lost primary to reformer to launch write-in campaign

  • Philadelphia DA supports law that would give lifers a shot at parole after 15 years

  • Florida deputy’s misconduct prompts prosecutor to dismiss cases

In the Spotlight

Wrongful conviction reversed—thanks to Golf Digest

It is probably safe to say that Valentino Dixon is the only person ever to get his murder conviction vacated thanks to a golfing magazine. (Readers: If this is untrue, please correct us.) Dixon, 48, was serving 39 years to life for the 1991 killing of Torriano Jackson in Buffalo, New York. Six years ago, Golf Digest featured an essay co-written by Dixon, who has never set foot on a golf course or hit a ball. Why run an essay by a man serving time for murder in a golf magazine? Dixon was spending hours and hours drawing spectacular and detailed golf-scapes. “Something about the grass and sky was rejuvenating,” he wrote of drawing his very first golf hole. The staff at the magazine noticed not only the drawings but that “his conviction seemed flimsy.” So they began their own investigation. They found “shoddy police work, zero physical evidence linking Dixon, conflicting testimony of unreliable witnesses, the videotaped confession to the crime by another man, a public defender who didn’t call a witness at trial, and perjury charges against those who said Dixon didn’t do it,” writes Max Adler. “All together, a fairly clear instance of local officials hastily railroading a young black man with a prior criminal record into jail.” [Max Adler / Golf Digest]

The article attracted other media outlets to the case, mostly sports programs. Dixon’s daughter began selling his artwork to raise money for legal fees. The new, more progressive district attorney of Erie County (who replaced a prosecutor who was mostly concerned with “wrongful acquittals”) began to cooperate. His office’s wrongful convictions unit issued a report about his case. They were assisted by a class of Georgetown undergraduates who have been creating documentaries, websites, and social media campaigns for innocence claims. “They did a great job of speaking to witnesses who could still be located, as well as getting Chris Belling [who prosecuted Dixon] to say things at variance with positions he’s argued in the past.” One of Dixon’s attorneys said, “Once a case crosses a certain threshold of media attention, it matters, even though it shouldn’t. It’s embarrassing for the legal system that for a long time the best presentation of the investigation was from a golf magazine.” [Max Adler / Golf Digest]

Dixon’s is not the only case that was investigated more thoroughly in the media than in the courtroom. The hit podcast “Serial” allowed listeners to scrutinize the conviction of Adnan Syed, who is serving time for the murder of his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. A lawyer for Syed has said the podcast was “enormously helpful” in pursuing justice for his client. Until the podcast aired, he had been unable to locate a crucial alibi witness, a witness who was not called at the original trials. Earlier this year, a court vacated Syed’s conviction and remanded it for a new trial, based in part on his original lawyer’s “failure to contact” the alibi witness. [Liam Stack / New York Times] Earlier this year, Kim Kardashian zeroed in on the plight of one grandmother, Alice Johnson, who was serving a life sentence for drug-related offenses, and convinced the president to pardon her. [Carla Baranauckas / HuffPost]

They say that a single death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic. People respond to heart-rending narratives featuring real people. But those putting out these stories are turning their attention to the thousands of equally deserving people lurking right behind their lucky subjects.

Both Sarah Koenig, who created “Serial,” and Kardashian have grown frustrated with the limitations and arbitrariness of publicly addressing one injustice at a time. Koenig said in a recent interview that season one “was a story about: Did this person do this or did they not? A more interesting question to me was: What is this trial and what does it mean and how is our system working?” The third season of “Serial,” recently released, is about the ordinary workings of the criminal justice system as exemplified by a courthouse in Cleveland. They wanted to examine “smaller, less flashy cases, more the day-to-day grind of the courts.” [Madison Feller / Elle]. Kardashian, too, returned to the White House to advocate broader reform for people serving extreme sentences. “It started with Ms. Alice, but looking at her and seeing the faces and learning the stories of the men and women I’ve met inside prisons I knew I couldn’t stop at just one,” Kardashian tweeted after her White House meeting. “It’s time for REAL systemic change.” [Cydney Henderson and Stacey Barchenger / USA Today]

A more productive model for the media-attention-as-instrument-of-justice model would be the case of Bernard Noble, who “became a national symbol of harsh drug laws after he was sentenced to 13 years of hard labor for carrying about two joints worth of marijuana,” according to the Marshall Project. His case had attracted the attention of billionaire New York hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, who “spent years pressing courts, governors and lawmakers to reverse the long sentence. This attracted media including Newsweek, VICE, and the Huffington Post. It worked: Noble was released this year after seven years. But before he was released, Noble’s supporters had successfully convinced the governor of Louisiana to help change a rule requiring prisoners to serve 10 years before clemency could be considered. And Louisiana lawmakers passed a bill to reduce the maximum sentence for marijuana possession. “But for Dan Loeb, we would not even have known, not just about Bernard’s case, but also this administrative rule on clemency,” said Holly Harris, executive director of Justice Action Network. [Nicole Lewis and Maurice Chammah / Marshall Project]

Stories From The Appeal

Police officers in riot gear line up in front of protesters during a demonstration in Berkeley, California, in 2014. [Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

In Washington State, It’s Nearly Impossible to Prosecute Police Killings. This fall, however, an initiative goes to voters that would change the law on deadly force by the police, which has led to no officer there being convicted of wrongfully killing someone in the line of duty in more than 30 years. [Mike Faulk]

The Incalculable Costs of Mass Incarceration. Prisons carry enormous, perhaps impossible to measure social costs—but when assessing the system fiscally, reformers should focus on staffing salaries instead of the number of incarcerated people. [John Pfaff]

The Appeal Podcast Episode 15: On the Ground in Dallas’s High Stakes DA Race. This week is our first installment in a new series about how activists and organizers on the ground are shaking up district attorney races. First up: Dallas County. [Adam H. Johnson]

Stories From Around the Country

Democratic New Jersey sheriff confirms fears about law enforcement with racist remarks: New Jersey’s governor, Phil Murphy, is calling for the resignation of Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino after a secret recording revealed the sheriff making racist remarks. The conversation was recorded after Murphy’s gubernatorial inauguration, and Saudino recounts Murphy’s speech: “He talked about the whole thing, the marijuana, sanctuary state … better criminal justice reform. Christ almighty, in other words let the blacks come in, do whatever the fuck they want, smoke their marijuana, do this do that, and don’t worry about it. You know, we’ll tie the hands of cops.” He then complains that Murphy appointed Gurbir Grewal, who is Sikh, solely because of “the turban.” Sheriff Saudino oversees the largest law enforcement agency in the state’s most populated county, assisting municipal police departments, guarding the courthouse, patrolling county roads, and running the jail. Another recent WNYC report showed that most people at the Bergen County Jail are now immigrants held as part of a contract with ICE. Under Saudino, these detainees are not allowed to hug their children during visits. [Matt Katz / WNYC]

Massachusetts prosecutor who lost primary to reformer to launch write-in campaign: “After beating the establishment candidate to win the Democratic primary battle for district attorney in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, Andrea Harrington now has to do it again,” reports The Intercept. Two weeks after losing the primary election by 692 votes, Paul Caccaviello announced a write-in campaign for the general election. In her campaign, Harrington espoused a progressive platform, while Caccaviello largely promised to continue the policies of his predecessor, who resigned to give Caccaviello the incumbency. In announcing his write-in campaign, Caccaviello said, “They must know that their DA is an experienced criminal attorney with a vast depth of knowledge, not a product manufactured by a powerful political machine.” Harrington’s response: “These are the ideas that were thoroughly debated during the primaries. The voters made their choice, and elections have consequences.” [Eoin Higgins / The Intercept]

Philadelphia DA supports law that would give lifers a shot at parole after 15 years: Philadelphia’s reformist district attorney, Larry Krasner, has come out in support of a proposed law that would give people sentenced to life in prison a chance to go before the parole board after serving 15 years. The bill would create an opportunity for release and an incentive to change. “Approximately 5,236 people are serving life sentences in Pennsylvania,” nearly half of whom are 50 years of age or older, writes Krasner. “Our state ranks second in the nation for elderly inmates.” He also notes that 55 percent of those serving life without parole are considered model prisoners. “Together, we can continue to include the voices of victims and their families while empowering the parole board to make decisions grounded in public safety and justice for all.” [Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office / Medium]

Florida deputy’s misconduct prompts prosecutor to dismiss cases: Prosecutor Glenn Hess has called for the dismissal of charges and of sentencing in some cases because he has “lost confidence in [Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Zachary] Wester’s professionalism” and can no longer trust him as a witness or as an investigator. An internal investigation is ongoing, but so far at least one body camera video appears to show Wester plant a packet of methamphetamine in the car of a woman he had pulled over. After the allegations came to light from within the prosecutor’s office and from defense attorneys, Wester was suspended with pay for about six weeks and then terminated this month. Hess filed for pleas to be vacated in six criminal cases, and dismissal of at least 41 pending cases in which Wester was a primary witness. Wester was involved in 263 cases this year, all of which are under review. [Deborah Buckhalter / Jackson County Floridian]

Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.

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