Exonerated prisoner shares his story with at-risk youth

Exonerated prisoner shares his story with at-risk youth
Valentino Dixon visited Sanctuary on 8th Street, where he spoke to more than 20 students, plus volunteers and staff, about his unjust incarceration and his path to freedom.

When Valentino Dixon spoke to children at the Springfield-based nonprofit Sanctuary on 8th Street about his journey of being convicted of a crime he did not commit and spending 27 years in prison before being exonerated, their eyes and ears took it all in and they eagerly asked him questions about his experience. 

Since he was released from New York’s Attica Correctional Facility last September when his 38-1/2 years-to-life sentence was vacated, Dixon’s world has expanded way beyond what he ever thought it could. It began with a set of colored pencils in the confines of a small prison cell and resulted in him becoming a nationally recognized artist with a knack for creating drawings of the world’s most iconic golf courses. 

Dixon is using his art as a platform to advocate for prison and sentencing reform through his newly created nonprofit, the Art of Freedom Foundation, which was launched at a July 8 reception at TPC Sawgrass hosted by the PGA Tour. The following day, he spoke to students at Sanctuary on 8th Street. 

THE PLAYERS has partnered with the Sanctuary on 8th Street since 2009, gifting more than $250,000 to support the center’s mission to encourage and empower at-risk youth in Jacksonville through education, social services, recreation and the arts. 

Richard Cartlidge, executive director of Sanctuary on 8th Street, welcomed the opportunity to have Dixon speak at the center. “One of our focuses is on art, and he has the art background. Our kids, staff and volunteers looked forward to hearing his story,” he said.

Though the tone of his speech was serious, Valentino Dixon also interjected some fun and laughs into his presentation.
Though the tone of his speech was serious, Valentino Dixon also interjected some fun and laughs into his presentation.

Dixon was able to relate to the kids on another level as well. Like them, he grew up in the inner city. He is intimately aware of all the challenges that living in that environment entails, and he encouraged the kids to stand strong in the face of pressure and adversity. He said being in the wrong place at the wrong time, plus a prior drug conviction, greatly contributed to his unjust incarceration. 

He was at an outdoor gathering with a large crowd of people who were drinking and doing drugs when shooting broke out, resulting in a death. A short time later Dixon was picked up by police for questioning, and even though someone else confessed to the murder two days later, Dixon was still charged and convicted. He was 21 years old at the time. 

“In life you have to be very courageous. You’re going to find yourself in situations where you know you should do the right thing and someone else is going to say ‘No, we are not going to do the right thing.’ So, you have to be strong enough to make the right decision,” Dixon said to the kids. 

When Dixon finished speaking, hands shot up and the students asked question after question, many related to how he dealt with being wrongly accused and convicted and how he stayed hopeful while in prison. 

Art was the answer. Dixon spent up to 10 hours a day drawing, perfecting his techniques. He became interested in creating golf art when a prison superintendent asked him to draw a well-known golf course. Though he had never been on a golf course, Dixon had the uncanny ability to study golf magazines and recreate, with his colored pencils and paper, life-like renderings of what he saw. Eventually, his drawings captured the attention of an editor at Golf Digest, who made his unjust conviction public. Then, students from Georgetown University stepped in to help prove his innocence. The result was Dixon’s freedom. 

State Attorney Melissa Nelson met with the kids after Valentino Dixon’s speech.
State Attorney Melissa Nelson met with the kids after Valentino Dixon’s speech.

“I pushed myself to a whole ‘nother level in a 6-by-8 cell. Imagine being caged in that for 27 years. You’re either going to lose your mind or you’re going to build your mind – one of the two,” Dixon said. “God blessed me with strength and sanity. He blessed me with a talent. I was healthy. You have to be grateful for the things that you have, no matter what situation you find yourself in.” 

Keyshawn Drummond, an outgoing 11-year-old who asked numerous questions, said he would not forget Dixon’s words. “I liked his presentation; I was very engaged in it. I learned that in life you never want to do something bad, as in selling drugs or being a drug dealer, because it could lead to a lot of trouble.”  

The more soft-spoken Heaven Warren, a 15-year-old, quietly observed and thoughtfully commented afterward. “It’s good that he got to share his story with us. He was in there for 27 years and he came out so positive,” she said. “Towards the end, when he talked about building or breaking your mind, that stuck with me. I’m not saying I make bad decisions, but I’m sometimes in the wrong crowd with people, and after what he said, I don’t want to be in the wrong crowd and one day go with the wrong crowd somewhere and get in trouble for something I didn’t do.”

Remarkably, Dixon is not bitter about his incarceration. He believes that his imprisonment and his art were put into his life to serve a higher purpose.  

“My goal now is to change as many lives as possible – to inform or educate lawmakers about what we really need to do to make the system more fair, just and equal, from my perspective and from my experience,” he said. “And I want the kids to know that if you make bad choices, those choices could cost you, even if you are innocent of the crime you are arrested for, so you have to make good choices at all times. You have to surround yourself with good people and you have to work hard to leave a good legacy in this life, to do something that you can be proud of – and this is what I’m trying to do right now.” 

By Kandace Lankford
Resident Community News

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