There is a well-known saying, called Blackstone’s formulation, which is supposed to represent the concept behind the judicial systems in the West
It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer
Yet, looking at the US judicial system, it seems like the exact opposite is the case. A lot of people are wrongfully convicted – either through being forced into plea bargains, or though plain wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project, which has been working to free innocent people for 25 years, have freed hundreds of people, many from the death row. Unfortunately, there is not enough resources to help everybody, and sometimes it takes a very unlikely series of events for someone innocent to get the attention of someone who can help.
This is the case with Valentino Dixon. He was wrongfully convicted of murder, and had served 27 years behind bars before getting his conviction overturned. While he family had fought for him getting released, the big breakthrough came when a golf magazine took up his case. Dixon came to the attention of Golf Digest because of his golf-related drawings. And as Golfworld explains, it didn’t take long for the magazine to notice that his conviction seemed rather doubtful.
It took about a hundred drawings before Golf Digest noticed, but when we did, we also noticed his conviction seemed flimsy. So we investigated the case and raised the question of his innocence.
The case is complicated, but on the surface it involves 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. All together, a fairly clear instance of local officials hastily railroading a young black man with a prior criminal record into jail. Dixon’s past wasn’t spotless, he had sold some cocaine, but that didn’t make him a murderer.
Golf Digest wrote about this, and the story was picked up by other media, without Dixon’s case got any traction. Then his case was picked by 3 Georgetown undergraduate students as their case in a Prison Reform Project course.
Dixon’s case was certainly the most advanced, mostly because he already had an attorney representing him and pursuing his innocence. But the case had stalled. One barrier to such efforts is the challenge of proving there is new evidence that needs to be considered — difficult in this case, since the real killer’s confessions had been well-known for decades.
The three students working on Dixon’s case kept pushing, traveling to visit Dixon in prison, tracking down witnesses, and interviewing the key figures in his original trial. Several interviews revealed the blatant incompetence and callousness of his original trial attorney, who didn’t seem troubled at all by the conviction.
But the bombshell moment occurred when the original prosecutor, unprompted, revealed that after Dixon had been arrested, the investigators had conducted gun residue testing on his hands and clothes, and the test came back negative.
This was a blatant violation of the landmark Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, which ruled prosecutors are obligated to provide defense attorneys with any material evidence helpful to the defense. Yet in this case, no one knew about the test until the Georgetown students captured the prosecutor talking about it on camera.
In short, these remarkable students broke new investigative ground and contributed to Dixon’s lawyers’ final and ultimately successful motion to overturn his conviction based on new evidence.
If Gold Digest hadn’t picked up the story, creating some media buzz, it is unlikely the case would have gotten the attention of the Georgetown professors running the course, and then the graduate students wouldn’t have begun their digging.
I cannot help wonder how many other wrongfully convicted people there are out there without the benefit of a passion that catches the eye of someone outside the prison. Given what we know about the conduct of US prosecutors and police forces, and in many cases public defenders, I can’t help but think that every case should be reviewed, especially those against poor, non-white people, who historically has been badly served by the US judicial system. This is not a small task, but it should be possible to identify cases with a high risk of wrongful conviction – this would be cases from districts where there has already been identified problems with the methods used by the prosecutor and the police force, cases where the public defender has a noteworthy bad record, and cases where there is evidence of a bias in the system (e.g. black crime against white people).
This is unlikely to happen as long as the GOP, and other though-on-crime politicians, are in political position – including the position of public prosecutor and judge in many cases. The only way to change this, is to vote for better politicians, and then pressure the elected politicians to work for justice, rather than being though on crime.
The original 2012 article in Golf Digest: Golf Saved My Life – Drawings From Prison