After 35 years of living with a wrongful conviction for rape and burglary, Perry Lott has been formally exonerated of the charges that sent him to prison three decades ago. His exoneration is the latest victory for the Innocence Project, which has worked on his case for nearly a decade. For Lott, who took a deal to be released in 2018 but was denied the request to clear his record, this latest move finally ends decades of injustice.

An attack and a mistaken identification

On Tuesday, Pontotoc County District Judge Steven Kessinger ordered that Perry Lott’s 1988 conviction for rape and burglary be vacated and the case against Lott dismissed, ending a 35-year legal ordeal for Lott in connection with an attack on a woman from the same town. On Nov. 2, 1987, a woman in Ada, Oklahoma, received threatening calls at her home and workplace before a man forced his way into her house at gunpoint, where he assaulted her and stole money before leaving. The victim was able to tell police that the assailant was a clean-shaven Black male with a gold tooth but could provide few other details because he wore a mask and because she was a “poor judge” of physical characteristics like height.

Based on the partial description, police eventually arrested Lott, a Black man with a gold tooth, despite Lott not owning a working phone at the time and Lott’s fiancee insisting that he had been with her all night. Lott was placed in a lineup with several other Black men, who each had gold foil placed over one of their teeth, as none of the others had gold teeth. The survivor eventually picked Lott out of the lineup despite him having a mustache; she later admitted uncertainty about her identification. Lott was convicted and sentenced to 100 years in jail.

The long road to justice for Lott and others

In 2014, the Innocence Project had the survivor’s rape kit tested for DNA, which demonstrated that Lott was not the man who had attacked her. Despite the exonerating evidence from the DNA testing, District Attorney Paul Smith refused to do away with Lott’s conviction. Instead, Lott and the Innocence Project fought for the next four years to get him released. In 2018, prior to a hearing on his conviction, Lott accepted an offer made by Smith to modify Lott’s sentence, releasing him from jail but keeping the conviction on his record. Before making the deal, Smith failed to inform Lott and his attorneys that the detective, who was the main witness for the prosecution, had died by suicide just before the planned hearing was to take place. It took a new district attorney coming into office to move along Lott’s case. DA Erik Johnson reviewed the case and concluded that Lott’s conviction should be overturned, which has now been made official by Kessinger.

Lott’s case is one of several Pontotoc County cases that have been disputed. In 1988, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were convicted of the 1982 rape and murder of Debra Sue Carter. The Innocence Project secured the release of both men after they spent 11 years in prison, as DNA evidence cleared them of the crime. Two other men in the same county — Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot — were convicted of a separate 1984 kidnapping and murder in the same county, but their confessions and the evidence against them have been challenged as well. These cases have been highlighted in the media, including a multipart Netflix documentary based on the book The Innocent Man, which is the first nonfiction work by bestselling novelist John Grisham.

As the Innocence Project continues to work on the cases of people like Ward and Fontenot, the group can now celebrate a clear victory in clearing Lott’s name and record. And Lott can work on rebuilding his life; now that his conviction has officially been overturned, he may be eligible for up to $175,000 in compensation, according to Oklahoma state law. For now, Lott said in a statement that he “can finally shut this door and move on with my life” now that his innocence has been established.