September 19, 2018 – A man imprisoned for more than 26 years was released today in New York, in part thanks to Georgetown students who worked diligently last semester to challenge his wrongful murder conviction and advocate for his freedom.
Valentino Dixon of Buffalo, New York, was exonerated in the early 1990s murder of Torriano Jackson and released after serving more than 26 of his 38.5 years-to-life sentence, mostly at the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility.
“The Georgetown students made me a believer that anything is possible – and that justice can be done,” Dixon said after learning about his release.
A group of 16 undergraduates in a unique “Prison Reform Project” course this past spring semester conducted investigations into four murder cases, including Dixon’s, that were thought to be wrongful convictions.
Marc Howard, director of the university’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, co-taught the course with his childhood friend Marty Tankleff, who was himself wrongfully imprisoned for almost 18 years.
‘No Greater Joy’
Three students in the course – Julie Fragonas, Isobella Goonetillake (C'18) and Naoya Johnson – worked on Dixon’s case, interviewing witnesses and experts as well as Dixon’s original prosecutor and public defender.
Following their investigations, the undergraduates created a website, a social media campaign and a documentary detailing the case.
“I am so proud of our students,” said Howard, also a Georgetown professor of government. “They understood that this wasn’t just a class activity or school project, but a real attempt to save a wrongfully convicted man’s life. As someone who has been through it before with my friend Marty, I know that there is no greater joy or satisfaction than to walk someone from prison into freedom.”
The students’ work dovetailed with Dixon’s preexisting legal motions. They coordinated with Dixon’s main appellate attorney, who filed a motion last spring that drew upon the students’ findings and ultimately proved successful.
According to Howard, the students also uncovered that the original prosecutors had never revealed to Dixon’s defense attorney that a gunpowder test on Dixon’s clothes had come back negative, a major violation in the original trial.
Howard says this evidence, compounded by the fact that another man, LaMarr Scott, confessed to the murder several times, helped convince current Erie County District Attorney John Flynn to reconsider Dixon’s case.
“Working on the Prison Reform Project has been a life-changing experience,” said Goonetillake of London. “Speaking to Valentino on a weekly basis, establishing a relationship with his family and being able to interview the prosecutors and defense team for this case has opened my eyes to the impact that students passionate about prison reform can have on the life of a wrongly convicted man.”
Strong Island Films documented the course for a six-episode series called “Making An Exoneree.”
“For the rest of my life it will always be a highlight that I helped an innocent person get exonerated and leave prison,” said Fragonas, an exchange student from Bordeaux, France. “I am so grateful to Georgetown for giving a French exchange student this incredible opportunity.”
Dixon’s family expressed gratitude for the students’ work.
"If the opportunity comes that you can be a light to someone else, take it,” said his daughter, Tina. “You never know just how much of an impact you can make, and these Georgetown students have made a profound and lasting impact for my father and our family.”
At a public event at Georgetown on April 30, students from Howard and Tankleff’s course unveiled a series of powerful short documentaries telling the stories of four wrongfully convicted men, including Dixon.
Family members, including Tina Dixon, were in the audience as well as close supporters of all four men. Each of the imprisoned spoke to the audience by phone.
Hope in Darkness
“It means everything in the world to me and my family for you to come in out of nowhere and help a total stranger. It’s a very special thing, and I’m so grateful and thankful,” Dixon said in April.
Tankleff, an adjunct professor at both Georgetown and Touro Law Center in New York, was exonerated in the murder of his own parents.
He said he could relate to how Dixon suffered in jail and praised the students' diligence.
“I’ve been in Valentino’s shoes myself,” he said, “and I know that what gives you hope in the darkest moments is knowing that people are fighting for you, to expose the truth and to finally bring about justice. The Georgetown students did phenomenal work, and their bond with Valentino will never be broken.”