Ricky Dority, a man who spent over two decades in prison for a murder he claims he did not commit, has been exonerated after new evidence emerged. Dority used his pandemic relief funds to hire a private investigator, who, along with students from the Oklahoma Innocence Project, found inconsistencies in the state’s account of the 1997 cold-case killing. A Sequoyah County judge vacated Dority’s conviction in June.
Dority is one of nearly 3,400 people who have been exonerated in the United States since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Oklahoma has seen more than 43 exonerations in that time, with three new exonerations this year alone. The state’s judicial system has faced criticism for old convictions resulting from factors such as overworked defense attorneys, shoddy forensic work, overzealous prosecutors, and outdated investigative techniques.
Wrongful convictions are particularly significant in Oklahoma, which has a history of sending people to death row. Since 1981, 11 inmates on death row have been exonerated. This has prompted a Republican-led legislative panel to consider a potential death penalty moratorium.
Glynn Ray Simmons, who spent nearly 50 years in prison, including time on death row, was recently freed in Oklahoma County after a judge determined that prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence in his case. Another exoneration occurred this week when Perry Lott had his rape and burglary conviction vacated in Pontotoc County after new DNA testing excluded him as the perpetrator. Pontotoc County has been under scrutiny for a series of wrongful convictions in the 1980s.
According to the Innocence Project, the most common causes of wrongful convictions are eyewitness misidentification, misapplication of forensic science, false confessions, coerced pleas, and official misconduct. In Dority’s case, he claims he was wrongly implicated by an overzealous sheriff and a state prosecutor eager to solve the murder of Mitchell Nixon. Another man, Rex Robbins, who later pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Nixon’s killing, had initially implicated Dority. However, Robbins recanted his statement during the investigation.
Dority’s original attorneys were criticized for not discovering that a police informant who testified against Dority did not live at the home where he claimed Dority had changed bloody clothes. The judge dismissed the case after the actual homeowner testified. Prosecutors have 90 days to decide whether they will retry Dority, and they have expressed their intention to request more time for DNA testing.
Despite the uncertainty, Dority remains confident in his innocence and is enjoying his newfound freedom on a 5-acre property in Greenwood, Arkansas.