Confronting uncomfortable truths: It's time to end the era of 'The Innocent Man'

JoshEdwards

After 30 years of imprisonment for a 1987 rape, Perry Lott walked out of the Pontotoc County Courthouse a free man on July 9. Lott, represented by the Innocence Project, requested a new trial as a result of recently tested DNA evidence. No physical evidence linked Lott to the crime scene, and new DNA analysis revealed that Lott’s DNA was not present in the rape kit performed on the victim. Most notably, the analysis indicated the presence of an unknown and unidentified male’s DNA.

Despite scientifically concluding that Lott’s DNA was not present in the rape kit and that another unknown male’s DNA was present, the district attorney insists that Lott is the perpetrator of the rape. The new DNA evidence was likely sufficient to grant Lott a new trial, so the district attorney offered Lott a choice. Lott could agree to surrender his claim for a new trial and be released from prison immediately but be followed by a felony conviction, or Lott could face a retrial for the charges while remaining in jail. After more than thirty years in prison, Lott chose to return to his family with a felony conviction, despite his claim of innocence. 

Lott’s case is just the latest example of our district attorney failing to acknowledge a wrongful conviction, and more critically, failing to restore justice. John Grisham’s nonfiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, cast a shadow over the justice system in Ada. Similar to the Lott case, The Innocent Man details the wrongful conviction of Ron Williamson; Williamson was later exonerated through DNA testing. Rightly or wrongly, The Innocent Man caused our District Attorney’s office to earn a reputation of promoting conjecture over integrity, convictions over truthfulness, and expediency over justice. This legacy is exacerbated by the actions of the district attorney in Lott’s case.

The district attorney must be willing to take a courageous stand when presented with strong evidence that an innocent person has been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. The focus of our court system and the goal of a prosecutor should be to determine the truth so that we may serve justice. This must include acknowledging mistakes, identifying shortfalls and promoting safeguards to prevent the miscarriage of justice. 

Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson stated, “Safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches his task with humility.” Our community is not safe — and justice is not served — when the district attorney is unwilling to confront the truth in light of exculpatory evidence. The district attorney must consider technological advances in the law and be willing to continuously examine whether justice is served in every case. Most importantly, our district attorney must value the pursuit of truth to provide justice to our community. Only then may we signal an end to the era of The Innocent Man.

Josh Edwards is a candidate for district attorney for Judicial District 22, which includes Pontotoc, Seminole and Hughes counties.