He went to prison at 15 for a killing that appalled the nation. Now free, he wants to prove his life has value.

MILWAUKEE – 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, Wisconsin, and into the arms of his mother.

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“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. 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 a detention center for boys.

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. Doris graduated from North Division High School in Milwaukee 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 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 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.

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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 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 reportfrom 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.

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MORE: Most of Charlie Young's family won't discuss his beating. 'It's still fresh,' his sister says.

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.

Dear Marlin,

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.

Dear Vicki,

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.”

Friends, then something more

A few days out of prison, Dixon's family took him out for pizza. One of his sisters, Ebony, brought a friend, Tyanna Cates. Ebony told Cates that her brother had just been released from prison.

“I was a little rusty at trying to talk to women, but I just told her who I was, and we started talking,” Dixon said.

When they were leaving, he asked Cates for her phone number. She handed him her phone, but he recorded the numbers wrong.

They would not talk again until Cates was tagged in a photo with Dixon and he was able to send her a message on Facebook.

Cates told Dixon she was not interested in anything but friendship because she lived in Texas; she was just in Milwaukee visiting her mother and other family members. But her weeklong stay turned into a month after her mother was involved in a car accident. That gave Dixon and Cates more time. His vulnerability drew her in.

"We were always together," Cates said.

She went back home to Texas but then flew back to visit.

By October 2020, Cates was pregnant. She was concerned that a child would set him back – so worried that she informed him with a picture of the pregnancy test and a sad-face emoji.

Dixon wasn't worried.

"I didn't see it as a problem like that because I knew we could handle it," Dixon said. “I was scared, but happy at the same time because I felt I had a second chance to do it right this time."

On Christmas Eve 2020, Cates, 34, started to feel ill. A miscarriage followed.

At the time, Dixon was still living in his mother's three-bedroom apartment, where he had been since his release. His sister Leslie also lived there, and two brothers, Darius and Don, occupied the basement.

“The lifestyle they were living was not good for me and I didn’t want to jeopardize putting myself in a position that could have landed me back in prison for another 18 years,” he said.

Dixon said his brothers thought he came across too preachy, while he felt they were not doing enough with their lives to get out of his mother’s basement.

Dixon tried to find housing, but rent seemed beyond reach.

“I had money saved up from work release, but I was just looking at what they wanted for a one- and two-bedroom, and the prices were over $1,000 to $1,500 a month just for something fairly decent and safe,” Dixon said.

In August 2021, after months of looking, Dixon found a two-bedroom apartment he could afford in Menomonee Falls, outside of Milwaukee.

“My girl (Cates) helped me to get it and I really love it out here. It’s quiet and it’s great for my mental health,” Dixon said.

He scoured Facebook Marketplace to furnish the place. A sectional for $150; two end tables for $100; a kitchen table for $50; a computer desk and chair for just a few dollars.

His bedroom includes a full shoe rack with dozens of sneakers. “I love basketball and I guess you can say shoes are my hobby,” he said.

He got a TV from Walmart and an Xbox that he plays constantly. And he has a dog, a Shih Tzu named Snacks.

“I could not have done this without my girlfriend," he said. "She helped me with securing resources, and she’s been my biggest support system and without her I don’t know where I would be."

Last October, Cates moved to Wisconsin to join him. "Even though our lives are so different, we have open communication, and we talk about everything," she said.

Working hard to break the cycle

Dixon also hoped to build a successful relationship with his daughter.

It hasn't been smooth.

“I try to spend time with her and go places, but she has her life,” he said.

An estimated 5.1 million kids have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation report. Compared with their white peers, African American and Latino kids over 7 years old are twice as likely to have a parent behind bars, the report found.

“Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce, with a potentially lasting negative impact on a child’s well-being,” the report said.

The foundation of a healthy relationship is rarely formed, it said.

Much of that held true for Dixon's relationship with his daughter, although it had improved somewhat in his last years of incarceration. When Dixon was on work release, he sent her money from his job cleaning vats at a pizza company. He wrote letters of love and encouragement.

About six months after he was released, Dixon gave Kamariya something she never had experienced.

“I gave her her first birthday party,” he said. “She never had one in her whole life. Me and my girlfriend rented a hall and decorated it. We had a DJ, food and her friends.”

For someone who observes more than she participates, it was a special moment. But overall, Kamariya remains guarded and quiet. Her upbringing wasn't easy. Dixon understands.

“It’s the same type of anger I had at my dad for not being there,” he said. “But I’m working hard to break that cycle.”

'He's an excellent worker'

While still in prison, Dixon worked at Richelieu Foods Inc., a manufacturer of private-brand pizzas and sauces. He cleaned pizza vats, and although the work was messy, the pay was good – $15 an hour. Part of the money he earned went toward the $750 a month to stay at Waupun.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but when you work, you have to pay for your stay in prison,” he said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, work release jobs shut down. However, his boss told him he could always come back after his release.

Dixon took him up on that offer. Higher pay made the two-hour round trip tolerable. But in just the first four months, Dixon picked up tickets for speeding and a seat belt violation. Sheriff's deputies also gave him a warning when his car went into a ditch during a snowstorm, and he got a passerby to pull it out.

The deputy “yelled at me, saying that I could have caused an accident and I needed a professional to get me out,” Dixon said. “It was a major snowstorm. All the professionals were busy.

"My P.O. (probation officer) told me that she was worried about me making that drive and getting stopped so much, so she told me to find something closer to home. I didn’t want to give it up, but it was the best decision.”

In November, Dixon landed a job at Bimbo Bakeries as a machine operator. The job pays well, and business is so good he can work six days a week if he wants.

"He's an excellent worker. He had a few hiccups his first week, but he's gotten better the whole time," said John Laabs, Dixon's supervisor.

Dixon's job includes taking 2,000 pounds of dough and adding it to a dividing machine that cuts it into loaf-sized pieces.

"I would say he's as good a divider operator who's brand new we've ever seen," Laabs said.

Dixon's prison record never came up.

"He was a solid candidate at the interview. It was that cut and dry," said Rodney Bahr, a manager. "You don't hold it against them, and honestly we didn't even know."

Because of the potential for discrimination, many states and cities have pushed for "ban-the-box" legislation, which limits what an employer can ask candidates on a job application or during the early stages of the screening process. Wisconsin has not adopted such legislation.

Dixon believes if he can do the job, past mistakes shouldn't get in the way.

"They're good people to work for and I'm thankful for the opportunity," he said.

Facing daunting odds as a free man

Dixon is now in the second of his 22 years of extended supervision. He has 21 rules he must abide by to avoid being sent back to prison.

He can't be in a place that serves alcohol. He can't be around a felon. He can't own a gun or be around a person with a gun, even if they can legally own one.

When he asked his probation officer how is he supposed to know if the person is a felon or not, he said he was told to ask.

"Am I supposed to ask every person who I come in contact with if they're a felon or not?" Dixon asked. "One of my brothers has a license to conceal carry and my P.O. told me when I go to his house, I need to ask him to put his gun in his car."

The limitations add fear and pressure.

"While I was locked up I've seen plenty of men locked back up because people said they saw them at a bar or their girlfriend got mad at them and said some things to get them revoked," he said. "And I have 20 more years of this."

He is facing daunting odds.

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated that nearly three-quarters of all released prisoners will be rearrested within five years of their release and about six in 10 will be reconvicted – though not necessarily for the same level of offense.

Nonetheless, Dixon thinks his odds without prison would have been even worse.

“I’m going to be brutally honest with you. I know I made the worst mistake in my life when I did what I did on that night in September, and not a day goes by where I don’t think about what I did to (Young),” he said. “However, if I would have stayed on the streets, I probably would have been killed.”

'It's something I have to live with'

While Dixon cannot have any contact with members of the Young family, he said he would like them to know he is sorry.

“After it happened, I blacked out on some of the things I did. But when I think back on it, I catch myself saying, I did do that," he said. “I was angry and hurt and I just wanted to hurt someone, but I never, ever meant for him to die. It’s something I have to live with the rest of my life."

Dixon acknowledged he can't understand the pain the Youngs have gone through, but as a parent, he can imagine how he would feel if someone did that to his daughter.

“For a mother to have to go through that, there are no amount of apologies that I can do," he said. "But I would love to redeem his blood in some way by mentoring and helping other kids so that they never participate in such a thing."

No matter how tough of an environment that you live in, young people need to know they have choices, Dixon said.

His probation also prohibits him from returning to the crime scene.

That part is easy. The home where the incident occurred has been torn down. It's one of many vacant lots in the neighborhood, which seems to have as much open space as housing, the result of aging, neglect and the city's efforts to tear down abandoned residences.

Children growing up in the area face the same challenges that Dixon and his friends faced two decades ago. In January, less than a mile from where Charlie Young Jr. was beaten, six people were shot and killed execution-style.

When Dixon was growing up, he knew more people who had been killed, shot or incarcerated than had graduated from college.

Doris Williams tried desperately to steer her son away from such a fate.

"She kept warning me that people who I thought were my friends were not really my friends," Dixon said, "And that if I kept doing some of the things I was doing, I was going to get into trouble that she couldn't get me out of."

After his arrest, her warnings finally sunk in.

"You have to excuse my language, but I realized that nobody in court gave a (expletive) about me," Dixon said. "The only person who never gave up on me was my mom."

The idea of a future barely crossed his mind.

"I never thought I would live to see 21, until I turned 21 and I had already been locked up seven years by then," Dixon said.

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COLUMN: I never expected to know Marlin Dixon. Now I worry that without change, other youths will follow his path.

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."


Meet the team

Reporter: James E. Causey

Editing: Thomas Koetting and Greg Borowski

Photos & Video: Angela Peterson and Sherman Williams

Data & Graphics: Erin Caughey, Yuriko Schumacher and Lou Saldivar

Production: Dan Kwas and Jordan Tilkens

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Marlin Dixon, released from prison reflects on 2002 Milwaukee killing

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