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Oklahoma man who spent 30 years in prison for rape is exonerated after DNA testing: "I have never lost hope"

An Oklahoma judge on Tuesday exonerated a man who spent 30 years in prison for a 1987 rape and burglary, after post-conviction DNA testing from a rape kit showed he did not commit the crime.

Pontotoc County District Judge Steven Kessinger issued a final order that vacates Perry Lott's conviction and permanently dismisses the case.

"I have never lost hope that this day would come," Lott, 61, said in a statement. "I had faith that the truth would prevail, even after 35 long years. I can finally shut this door and move on with my life."

This photo provided by the Innocence Project shows Perry Lott, second from right, inside a courtroom in Oklahoma City, July 9, 2018, with his brother Steve Lott, left; sister Tammy Lott, center; and brother Willie Lott, right. AP

Lott was released from prison in 2018 after the DNA results first came to light, but only after agreeing to a deal with former District Attorney Paul Smith to modify his sentence. The agreement allowed Lott to leave prison and remain free while his motion to vacate was litigated. At the time, Smith said the DNA evidence did not exclude Lott as a suspect.

But earlier this year, the Innocence Project, which helped to free Lott, approached newly elected District Attorney Erik Johnson, who reviewed the case and agreed the conviction should be vacated.

"Five years ago, all evidence pointed to his innocence, but he was denied justice," Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney Adnan Sultan said in a statement. "We are grateful to District Attorney Erik Johnson for his commitment to righting this wrong."

In 2014, the survivor of the attack allegedly told an investigator that she was scared to pick the wrong man in the lineup and nothing specific made her choose Lott as the attacker, according to the Innocence Project. The group says eyewitness misidentification is the leading contributing factor of wrongful convictions and has contributed to 64% of the Innocence Project's 245 exonerations and releases

"Former District Attorney Smith's opposition to the irrefutable evidence of Mr. Lott's innocence was a blatant miscarriage of justice," said Barry Scheck, Innocence Project's co-founder. "This unwillingness to acknowledge the truth in addition to the systemic factors at play in Mr. Lott's wrongful conviction cost him 35 precious years — and have plagued other wrongful conviction cases in Ada for decades."

Oklahoma state law requires a conviction to be vacated in order for a wrongfully convicted person to be able to seek up to $175,000 in compensation from the state.

Lott's case occurred around the same time and in the same county as the convictions of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, whose cases have come under intense scrutiny and have been the subject of numerous books, including John Grisham's "The Innocent Man," which he produced into a six-part documentary on Netflix. A federal judge ordered Fontenot released, but Ward remains in prison.

The books and documentary also feature the high-profile exoneration of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, who both were convicted in the same county for the 1982 killing of Ada waitress Debra Sue Carter. That case featured the same cast of investigators and prosecutors, along with the same jailhouse informant who testified against Ward and Fontenot. Williamson at one point came within days of being executed. Both were later freed.

Lott's exoneration after being incarcerated for decades for a wrongful rape conviction follows other similar cases in recent weeks. Last month, a California man who spent 28 years in prison for rape, kidnapping and robbery was declared innocent and freed. Also in September, a New York man was officially exonerated 47 years after he was found guilty of rape in 1976, the Innocence Project said.

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