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]