Can Words Alone Exonerate This Sex Offender?

On a sunny December day, Kelly Simon takes her father, a registered sex offender just released from prison, to visit Big Bass Resort. It's a sprawling apartment complex, complete with grassy courtyards and enough palm trees to resemble Orlando, and 57-year-old Roderick Dixon would like to live here.

He's visited at least a dozen complexes like this one that seemed feasible, places that were nowhere near a school or a playground or any children at all—“adult living,” most of the signs say. He wears his golden-brown argyle sweater with the cuffed white dress shirt underneath, the outfit Simon bought him on his first day out of prison. Then he puts on his best smile for the cheery apartment managers who haven't yet run a background check.

Once they do, this is what they'll find: In 1993, Dixon was accused of sodomizing his four-year-old nephew. After pleading no contest, he was only supposed to do five years probation, but one month later a judge revoked it and ordered Dixon serve the full 40-year sentence after a drug-related run-in with police. 

Both Dixon and the alleged victim say the crime never happened, and the Texas Southern University innocence project has been pushing for his exoneration since 2004. The Harris County District Attorney's Office's conviction integrity unit recently agreed to investigate Dixon's case as a potential wrongful conviction.

Still, none of that changes the fact that apartment managers don't welcome sex offenders.

And so Dixon lives in a halfway house with eight of them, the only place his daughter could find before he was paroled on April 1, 2015. The place reminds him of prison. There's the roommate he doesn't talk to. The men who crank their music with no regard for regular sleeping hours. The others who make crude comments about young girls outside on the sidewalk that make Dixon, the loner, too disgusted to leave his room. “They think I'm a weirdo,” he says.

Dixon's case for innocence revolves around two recantations, one from his niece, who made the allegations in the first place, and one from his nephew, the victim, each given in 1999 and 2006 respectively. In November, Dixon became the first recantation case HCDAO's conviction integrity unit, established in 2009, has ever taken.

But Dixon's exoneration is anything but certain. For one, he never had a trial, where the facts would be stowed on the record for later. Then, sometime in the late 1990s, most of the physical evidence that could have exculpated him was accidentally destroyed. Innocence cases based solely on recantations are a tough sell at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, says Inger Chandler, who heads DA's conviction review team. The judges typically want DNA evidence, or a compelling reason for the initial false outcry, Chandler said. The only additional physical evidence left in Dixon's case is a couple wooden sticks, from when doctors swabbed his nephew's genital area; the cotton is missing. That means Chandler and her team must determine why two kids lied about Dixon 23 years ago, and what led them to take it all back years later. 

And that's what makes recantation cases particularly tricky. "In a lot of ways, they're very subjective," Chandler says. “You basically have a person coming to you and saying, 'I lied before. I'm telling you the truth now.' And the real challenge is, how do you know?” 

Although words alone may not be enough to exonerate Dixon, back in 1993, they were more than enough to put him in prison.

Dixon's roughly 25 years of horrible luck began just a couple years before the allegations. First, in the early '90s, he lost his bill collector job. Next he lost his apartment. Next, he found crack cocaine on the streets. And then, after he successfully completed rehab, got a good job, and thought he was finally on the up-track, he moved in with his brother, Benny, and his wife, Marie—who were both crack addicts and living on welfare, and who had three kids who really didn't like Dixon. It was the only place he could find.

With both parents normally missing, Dixon began disciplining the kids and making them do chores—which especially irritated the oldest niece, 11-year-old Keshia. She was used to being left in charge of her siblings—four-year-old Benny and two-year-old Mary—and after Dixon moved into her room, forcing her to bunk with the toddlers, Keshia says she began resenting him.

On November 9, 1993, Dixon came home from work to find the two toddlers watching TV in the living room; no adults were home. Keshia says she arrived about an hour later to find the kids crying, upset that Dixon had changed the channel. When Dixon ordered Keshia to wash the dishes, she ignored him, grabbed her siblings, and headed to her aunt's house down the block. Keshia's aunt misunderstood when the girl said Dixon had been "messing with them." Seeing her aunt's rage, she didn't bother clarifying—certain that Dixon would be kicked out of the house and out of her room. 

The aunt called police immediately, and an ambulance rushed the toddlers to the hospital. Doctors examined them within 30 minutes of the alleged incident, and nothing appeared abnormal. (Dixon was never indicted for assaulting the two-year-old for lack of evidence.) But Benny told the doctors that Dixon “stuck his thing in his booty” and “played with his ding-a-ling.” In his 2006 affidavit, Benny explained that his sister told him to say those words. In an interview with the Press, Benny says he remembers the entire night and that nothing happened. “If something traumatic had happened to me that night,” he said, “I think I would've remembered.”

Dixon spent nine months in jail before he agreed to plead no contest in exchange for five years probation. His court-appointed attorney promised him it was the best idea. “She said, 'If you take this case to trial, the judge or jury is going to believe the outcry of the alleged victim, and you can get 99 years in prison,'” Dixon remembers. “That frightened me to death.”

So he took it—meaning no witnesses would ever take the stand to explain what happened, Dixon would never go on record to give his side of the story, and the people investigating Dixon's case 23 years later would have little else to go on but what 11-year-old Keshia told her aunt in 1993.

While this may be the conviction integrity unit's first recantation case, assistant district attorney Andrew Smith, from the office's post-conviction appeals division, says his unit handles about three to five per year. And in his six years, he has never seen a single one end with an exoneration. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been just 34 exonerations based on recantations nationwide in individual cases of child sexual assault since 1989. “History has shown that they exist,” Smith said. “But at least based on my investigations, I've been able to uncover all different reasons why the recantations aren't credible.”

In one recent case, Smith said, a struggling family had pressured the abused child to recant so that the father could come home and put food on the table.

In Dixon's case, however, Keshia says she came forward because of guilt.

She was 17 in 1999 when she realized why her uncle was incarcerated. Like most of the family, she had thought for a long time that he was in prison because he screwed up his life with drugs again, when police arrested him for possession of cocaine a month after he was released from jail for the sexual assault. (Dixon had become homeless when he was released on probation; he relapsed almost immediately.) “He was like the elephant in the room,” Benny Jr. remembers, thinking of the time he saw an old picture of Dixon and wondered what happened to him. “No one wanted to talk about him.”

While Dixon's daughter always believed he was innocent, she didn't talk about him either. After Dixon told her he would be in prison for 40 years, she simply blocked him out of her thoughts.

But years later, in her twenties, she started to rebuild their relationship through monthly one-hour visits. When her kids were growing up, she started sharing bits and pieces of their grandfather with them. By the time they were teenagers, he'd become something of a family myth. “When my oldest daughter met him," Simon remembers, "she said, 'We almost thought you didn't exist—we thought you were from a story.'”

Today, Dixon is not allowed any contact with his grandchildren, or any children. He couldn't come with Simon on a recent family vacation to New Orleans, or to see a big Floyd Mayweather boxing fight in Las Vegas, or even a Father's Day celebration his own daughter had thrown at the beach.

For now, he's waiting patiently as the DA's office investigates his case. It helps, Dixon says, when his therapist tells him to hang onto the word "yet." He hasn't found an apartment—yet. He hasn't been cleared from the sex offender registry—yet.

And with the restraining order still tightly in place, he also has yet to talk to Keshia Easter, now in her thirties.

Keshia just wants to say sorry to the man whose life she ruined as a child. Dixon just wants to tell her that it's okay—that he still loves her.

But no one wants his parole to be revoked, and so they both stay quiet. 

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