At 11:32 a.m., on a sunny, 47-degree Tuesday, Marlin Dixon walked out from behind the barbed wire gate at the John C. Burke Correctional Center in Waupun and into the arms of his mother.
This special report is possible thanks to the Wellpoint Care Network, the O’Brien Fellowship program at Marquette University’s Diedrich College of Communication and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel subscribers. Please support in-depth local reporting by subscribing at jsonline.com/deal.
“I told you to stay strong and you would one day be free,” said Doris Williams, sobbing on his shoulder.
It was Sept. 22, 2020.
Shouts, applause and laughter enveloped Dixon like a second layer of clothing over his yellow and black Nike tracksuit. A dozen people took turns giving him hugs, then stepping back to record the scene.
Dixon’s daughter, Kamariya, watched hesitantly. Five months old when he was arrested, 7 years old when her mother finally let her visit him in prison, she had never known her father as a free man. Now, she was 18 and he was 32.
Dixon stretched his arms out and said, “Come here, I missed you.” He wrapped her in a long hug, the kind that prison rules never permitted.
“I missed you too, Daddy,” Kamariya said.
“You’re nearly as tall as me,” Dixon responded, smiling broadly.
The group made its way to a cluster of vehicles, Dixon pulling a rolling cart with his boxed-up prison belongings. He turned back briefly to acknowledge calls from inmates on the other side, “guys who I built bonds with for years.” Then the group loaded up and headed back to Milwaukee.
At his brother Alex’s house, nieces and nephews he knew only by name surrounded him. Even his brother was a virtual stranger; Alex Dixon had been incarcerated, too, and coupled with probation restrictions, the two didn’t know each other as adults.
“You were wearing Power Rangers drawers the last time I saw you,” Marlin told his younger brother.
Another brother, Darryl, was 11 when Marlin headed to prison. Having his older brother home, he said, was like getting his father back.
As the celebration continued, Kamariya sat on the couch, taking in the scene as she scrolled through her phone. Occasionally, she looked up and smiled.
Marlin was 14 when she was born; her mother was 15.
“I’m just happy that he’s out so we can start building on our relationship,” Kamariya said.
A killing unlike any other
The beating of Charlie Young Jr., on Sept. 29, 2002, stunned Milwaukee and the nation, both for its viciousness and the ages of those involved.
A group of friends from a north side Milwaukee neighborhood were hanging out on a street corner that Sunday evening, teasing one another. Young, far older at 36, joined in. Tension between Young and some of the youths had been brewing.
To adults, Young was a neighborhood handyman. To youths, he was a bully and an antagonist, the kind of guy who would approach kids playing with a football, catch a pass, and then throw the ball in the wrong direction and walk away laughing.
This time, the joking got personal and a 13-year-old boy threw an egg at Young, hitting him in the shoulder. Young pushed the boy down. Dixon jumped in to help his smaller friend, and the two scuffled, with Young pulling a blade on Dixon and then backing away.
Later that night, Young headed back onto the streets. He had been drinking. He approached the boys and blindsided Dixon with a punch to the mouth, knocking out one of the teen’s bottom teeth.
Enraged, Dixon and his friends — including a brother, Don Dixon, who was 13 —grabbed sticks, rocks, rakes and shovels. They chased Young to a home near North 21st Lane and West Brown Street. A man there said Young was inside, and the boys stormed in, finding him in a back hallway. They dragged him onto the porch and assaulted him mercilessly.
At one point, Young escaped back into the house, only to be hauled out and beaten some more. His right ear was partially ripped off; his skull cracked open; his blood splattered up the porch wall and onto the 9-foot-high ceiling.
When Young lost consciousness, the mob slowly dispersed. Marlin Dixon went back, beating his defenseless victim some more.
When police arrived after a call from a neighbor, they initially thought he had been shot up, so devastating were his wounds. Many law enforcement officials considered it the worst beating death in Milwaukee history.
Later, doctors at what was then Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital found no brain activity. Young died Oct. 1, after his family had him taken off life support.
Milwaukee police rounded up 16 people. Twelve were charged, including seven teenagers — Dixon among them — charged as adults with first-degree reckless homicide.
All but three of the others in the mob ultimately received plea deals, ranging from 18 months to 10 years in prison. Two — ages 14 and 10 — were found incompetent to stand trial. One, age 15, was acquitted. Don Dixon received two years at Ethan Allen School, a detention center for boys in Wales.
Marlin Dixon’s fate differed.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge John Franke found him guilty after a three-day bench trial in adult court. While Franke noted Dixon was punched in the mouth by Young earlier in the day, he said Dixon’s response — especially his final blows after Young was helpless — outweighed the provocation.
“At this point, Mr. Dixon was acting on his own,” Franke said. “The mob mentality may have remained, but the mob was gone and he beat Mr. Young severely again on his own.”
On June 27, 2003, Dixon entered court for sentencing. By then he was 15 years old, tall for his age at 5-foot-10, and lanky as a coatrack. His feet were shackled. Franke considered Dixon more culpable for Young’s death than the other participants, and handed him the harshest sentence: 18 years incarceration and 22 years of extended supervision.
Dixon remained outwardly stoic. He later said he heard the words but missed the meaning of a divided sentence. All he kept thinking was: 40 years, that’s a long time.
“I just couldn’t think of anything but that,” he said later.
A life infused with violence
Before heading to prison, before the Charlie Young Jr. beating, before fathering a child at 14, Marlin Dixon’s journey had already been grim.
His father, Anthony Dixon, met Doris Williams when he was 10 and she was 9. The two grew up near North 10th and East Locust streets. Doris graduated from North Division High School in 1974; Anthony dropped out in 10th grade. Doris had her first child, a daughter, at 22, by another man.
Marlin was the couple’s first child together, followed by a second son, Don. Three more sons and two daughters followed.
Anthony and Doris never married. Anthony worked as a meat cutter while trying to manage a heroin addiction. Doris worked as a housekeeper, then a nurse’s aide, struggling to provide for the children.
In school, Marlin could barely read, although teachers constantly passed him to the next grade. He felt they didn’t want to bother with him.
When his father was around, he verbally and sometimes physically abused Doris, as well as her first-born daughter and Marlin.
“My father was a very unbalanced man in every way possible. He was strung out on drugs and he used heroin and crack cocaine,” Dixon said.
Marlin said his father treated his younger brothers and sisters more like a father should.
“When it came to me, my big sister, and my mother … he was abusive,” Dixon said. “I never knew why he denied me as his son although I looked just like him. I never understood why he held so much resentment toward me.”
The abuse came against a backdrop of poverty. The kitchen lacked food. The home needed repairs. The neighborhood teemed with violence. Gunshots and police sirens echoed through the nights.
The last time his parents were together at home ended in yet another argument.
“She put him out of the house and then all of a sudden our windows got smashed out,” Dixon said. “Mom thought my Pops did it, but he said he didn’t, and it turned into a bigger fight.”
On March 23, 2001, his father ran into Edward Barnes outside a northside Milwaukee methadone clinic. For whatever reason, he believed it was Barnes who had knocked out the windows. The two men argued and Dixon knocked him to the pavement. Barnes pulled a knife and plunged it into his accuser’s chest, twice.
Marlin was at a friend’s house when he got a call from his sister Tezra.
“She said he was hurt bad, but I didn’t know how serious. It was a bittersweet moment for me because I felt like he couldn’t hurt us anymore, but I felt sorrow at the same time,” Dixon said.
Later, doctors called the family to come say their final goodbyes.
“When I laid my eyes on him, he didn’t look like my dad because he had lost so much blood,” Dixon said.
Emotion wracked his mother and siblings. Dixon felt numb.
“They were all crying, but I wasn’t,” Dixon said. “I was abused by him, sometimes over the smallest of things. I remember one time he came in the house and I was already in the bed, and he woke me up out of my sleep, yelling at me because I ate up the ice cream. But we didn’t have anything else in the house to eat.”
His father died later that night. He was 46.
At the funeral, mourners lined up and shared stories of how hard he worked and how he loved his family. Marlin listened, amazed they were talking about his father.
Then a woman Marlin had never seen before approached him.
“She told me that I looked just like my father. And then she told me that Anthony Dixon was her father, too,” he said. “I had a whole sister out there that I never knew about. I felt bad because it seems like she had a better relationship with him than I did.”
Relatives told Dixon he had new responsibilities.
“I was 13 and people were telling me that I was the man of the house,” he said. “I failed miserably. I didn’t know how to get money and bring money into the house. I couldn’t get a job. And I guess that pressure pushed me to start indulging into drugs and hanging out more. I was just angry and I didn’t know why.”
Barnes, the man who killed Dixon’s father, served seven months in the House of Correction for second-degree reckless homicide.
He was already out of incarceration when Dixon headed in.
Using a ‘vigorous prosecution’ model
Dixon’s sentencing came when tough-on-crime court strategies were the norm.
A little more than a decade earlier, in 1991, Milwaukee hit what was then an all-time peak for homicides, with 163. By 1994, homicides committed by youths nationally peaked, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Judges started handing down harsher sentences in an attempt to regain control of neighborhoods and communities, said Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who joined the DA’s office that year.
A “vigorous prosecution” model was in vogue, Chisholm said. From 1993 to 1999, the number of adults held in detention rose 18%, and the number of youths under age 18 held in adult jails more than doubled nationwide.
By the time Dixon was sentenced, Wisconsin had enacted a truth-in-sentencing law, eliminating parole. With credit for time already served, he would spend the full 18 years behind bars.
Fredrick Gordon was the alderman in the district when the Young homicide occurred.
“It didn’t take long for the national media to jump all over this story,” he said.
Gordon received a call from Bill O’Reilly, the conservative political commentator with a show on Fox News called “The O’Reilly Factor.” O’Reilly wanted to set up an interview.
“All I remember is having him screaming in my ear saying all of these kids should get the maximum sentence and that they were a menace to society,” Gordon said. “I hung up on him because he didn’t want to talk about all of the problems that caused this to happen in the first place.”
Elsewhere on cable TV, a nonscientific survey conducted by CNN asked: Should the youths charged with a Milwaukee man’s beating death be tried as adults? Ninety-one percent of responders said yes.
Not all were enthused.
John O. Norquist was Milwaukee’s mayor at the time of Dixon’s sentencing. “That’s a lot of time for a kid whose brain isn’t fully developed, especially when you consider all of the youths involved,” Norquist said recently.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was no talk about childhood trauma, and little awareness of tools like the ACE test, a now universal measurement of adverse childhood experiences that can predict physical and mental problems in adulthood.
“Twenty years ago, we were not talking about trauma the way we talk about it today. Judges didn’t want to hear about mental illness because to them that was like giving a person an excuse to have bad behavior,” said Brenda Wesley, a member of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board and former city outreach coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Nearly all those involved in the Young beating grew up in poverty, witnessed violence and had been victimized, said Robin Shellow, an attorney who represented several of the defendants — though not Dixon. Many of them suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.
Shellow used an “urban psychosis” defense, suggesting that inner-city youths are numbed by the rampant violence in their neighborhoods and homes.
“When I tried to bring up trauma, I was laughed at,” Shellow said in an interview shortly before her death last year. “No one really wanted to hear this in 2002, but today everyone is talking about how trauma can impact a child’s brain and behavior. The science has caught up.”
Over the past 20 years, the criminal justice system has undergone a sea of change, especially when it comes to sentencing juveniles, Chisholm said.
“Now we know so much more about trauma and the impact it can have on people living in disadvantaged minority communities, and the impact it has on youth,” Chisholm said.
While it’s impossible to know how Young’s murder would have been handled today, Chisholm suggested Dixon’s sentence would have been less harsh.
“I believe it would have been 10 or 12 years. He would have been punished because he did go back on the porch, but it would not have been 18 years,” Chisholm said.
Data shows that people who commit violent crimes need not be locked away for decades for the sake of public safety.
“People convicted of violent and sexual offenses are actually among the least likely to be rearrested,” concluded a recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative.
The main reason for the lower recidivism among people convicted of violent offenses is age, Chisholm said.
The Prison Policy Initiative report concurred, saying the risk for violence peaks in adolescence and early adulthood, and declines with age, and yet we incarcerate people long after their risk has declined.
Asking for help, staying out of trouble
In so many ways, Dixon was a boy in a man’s prison.
One inmate convinced him that he could get his case reviewed for $500. Dixon persuaded his mother to send the inmate money only to discover it was one of many scams that veteran inmates pull on newcomers.
After his sentencing, he had wanted to send a letter to his daughter’s mother but could not spell the street she lived on.
“I didn’t know how to spell Fond du Lac,” he admitted later. “Some of the guys I was in prison with were in the same boat and at first we just joked about it.”
When a prison instructor chastised Dixon and the others for joking around in the back of his class, Dixon said things changed for him.
“He told us that we can joke and laugh, but the joke was on us because he knew how to read and there was nothing funny about our condition,” Dixon said.
Dixon later went up to the instructor, apologized, and asked for help.
“He gave me books — intermediate, first, second and third grade, and he did the same thing with math — first, second and third,” Dixon said.
Dixon participated in religious services, and in anger management classes, which offered conflict resolution skills. He joined a restorative justice group and, later, a program where he talked to troubled youths to steer them in a positive direction.
He spent most of his free time playing basketball, handball and — no longer illiterate — reading books. “I love reading, especially books on social and political issues,” Dixon said. “Any book that challenges me in my mind and heart are the best.” He devoured the works of political activist Cornel West, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander and religious author Todd D. Bennett.
Dixon said he never had a fight with prison staff or other inmates.
“That’s saying a lot, because a lot of people walk around looking for trouble,” Dixon said.
He also saw people from his home neighborhood cycle through. “Some even came through at least twice,” Dixon said.
By the time his release arrived, he had completed his GED, acquired his driver’s license, earned a certificate in baking and another in cosmetology.
“I can cook, bake and give you a great haircut,” Dixon said, laughing.
Support from a surprising source
The most surprising relationship Dixon developed in prison was with Vicki Conte, who had been in court for all the Young proceedings. She served as the victim’s advocate for Fannie Young, Charlie’s mother.
Conte’s first memory of Dixon was seeing him led into a courtroom in October 2002. She noticed a teenager holding a baby sitting in the front row. The teen was Dixon’s girlfriend; the infant was Kamariya.
“He looked like a scared little boy and he had a child,” she said. “He was just a child himself.”
For Fannie Young, the cases connected to her son’s death were all-consuming, though she kept her emotions in check.
“Fannie understood the court system and never kidded herself. She knew her son had problems with the law, too. The stress of the case took its toll on her, being there every day,” she said.
Fannie died in May 2005 of colon cancer. She was 63.
“She was a faith-filled woman who had faith in God that good would come from all of this,” Conte said.
Conte found herself sympathizing with Dixon because of the way his public defender portrayed him in court.
“He wasn’t offered a plea deal like the other boys, and his lawyer argued he was too stupid to commit this crime, and he also talked about Marlin having an extremely low IQ. It was hurtful for me to hear and for Marlin to hear as well,” Conte said.
Conte didn’t believe the mob beating had anything to do with kids of low intelligence. She believed it was a mob attack that got completely out of hand, with the kids feeding off each other’s emotions.
A year earlier, her son had been involved in a telling incident.
“My teen son got into a fight at middle school involving a disabled kid and other boys. The disabled kid got beat up and I kept asking my son why he was involved, and he kept saying he didn’t know, until finally he said he did it because everyone else was doing it,” Conte said.
No one died, but Conte pointed out a stark difference between her son and Dixon.
“My son is a suburban white kid and got off scot-free because we could afford to pay for a good lawyer. That was not the case with Marlin,” she said.
Although she was there for Young’s mother, Conte remembered being stunned by Dixon’s sentence.
“I still believe he got the most time because all of the other defendants kept saying that the only reason they went after Mr. Young was because he knocked Marlin’s tooth out,” said Conte, now 66.
She left the DA’s office soon after the trial because she felt that she had “too much of a heart for the defendants” and the circumstances of their lives.
Over the years, she kept wondering how Dixon was doing. Then in 2017, she did some research, found Dixon’s location, and wrote him a letter.
My name is Vicki Conte. I am a 62-year-old grandmother now living in Denver, CO. I used to work for the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office. My job was “victim advocate.” I had to drive Charlie Young’s mother to court and sit with her through the many appearances that you and all the other boys had. It was all very sad. I know you all killed Charlie. I know you were all boys. And you especially, with the longest sentence, have paid a price for that.
I have thought about you so many times in the last 14 or 15 years. I have wondered how a boy of 14 can grow up in prison. I have worried about you. I have worried about your physical and mental health. I wonder if you get visitors … I wonder about your little girl. She was just a baby at the trial.
She finished the letter by saying she could send him books or a few things that he might need if he liked.
“I didn’t know how he would respond, or if he would respond at all,” she said.
Dixon sent her a two-page handwritten letter.
You are far too kind, that was one of the most heart warming letters I’ve ever received during my incarceration, and I thank you for the benign gesture of taking time out of your day to write me and I appreciate your thoughts and concerns you had for me over the 14½ years I’ve been gone away. That was very soft, gentle, and sweet of you to do that.
Dixon told her that he was 29 and growing up in prison “has not been easy for me in the least.”
“I suffered a lot of depression and anxiety and I suffered from PTSD but I didn’t allow it to destroy me and I just kept breathing and eventually things go better and I used all that I went through to shape me into a better human being …
“I am now in minimum custody with 3½ years to go in prison and right now I am working in the kitchen as a baker and will be going to work on the farm soon. … I would love your help in assisting me to integrate back into society because Yahweh knows I really need it. Everything will be new to me when I get released.”
The letters launched regular correspondence, and that led to visits. Conte made three side trips to Waupun to see Dixon while she was visiting family back in Wisconsin. A month after he was released, she visited him for the first time as a free man.
“I value her opinion a lot. She helped get me through a lot of tough times, but she keeps treating me like I’m that same 14-year-old boy that she saw in court that time,” Dixon said, teasing her during a recent lunch. “I’m a grown man now.”
After reaching that milestone, Dixon believed more was possible. “I was a man and I realized that I just couldn’t stay mad anymore,” he said.
The change was gradual, not sudden. But he had made a choice. He wanted to be different for his daughter and for his mother. Mostly, he wanted to be different for himself.
“All of the things that I’ve achieved since I’ve been released, I dreamed about. I wanted to have my own place. I wanted to have a good job. I didn’t want to be around violence and all of the things associated with it.”
The most obvious reminder of Dixon’s past is visible any time he looks in a mirror: a gap where one of his bottom left teeth should be.
“One of my friends suggested to me that I should get a gold crown to mark a moment where that situation destroyed my life, but it also built my life,” he said. “Gold has to go through fire as a test to show you what it’s made of, and for you to see how much value it carries.”
“I’ve been through the fire. Now people need to see my value.”
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Marlin Dixon, released from prison reflects on 2002 Milwaukee killing