Chaunte D. Ott received a $6.5 million settlement from the City of Milwaukee for spending over 12 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction, after being cleared by DNA evidence that connected the crime to a serial killer.
Ott, now 42, was convicted of the August 1995 murder of 16-year-old Jessica Payne. Fearing the consequences of an arrest for fighting with another girl, Payne and her friend, Rebecca Morrison, 13, ran away from home on August 26, 1995.
The girls, both Caucasian, ended up at a house involved in prostitution and drug sale activities in North Milwaukee. At some point they left with four black men and went to a friend’s house. Morrison had sex with several of the men but Payne wanted to go home; she was dropped off at a street corner.
Her body was found under a mattress behind an abandoned house on August 30; a rape kit was collected because sexual assault was suspected by the medical examiner. A month later, a prisoner at the Milwaukee County Jail told authorities that Richard Gwin was involved in the murder of a young white woman.
Gwin was taken into custody and coerced to identify someone the police could arrest for Payne’s murder. The “improper and undue pressure” by officers allegedly resulted in Gwin providing “a statement falsely implicating himself and two others” in Payne’s death.
Gwin identified Sam Hadaway and Ott as being involved in the crime. Hadaway repeated “Gwin’s false statement implicating Mr. Ott, which [the officers] accomplished by feeding Mr. Hadaway the details of the statement and improperly pressuring him.” Hadaway suffered from cerebral palsy and “brain damage,” making him susceptible to the coercion.
At that point, the investigation ended. “Rather than continue to perform the police work necessary to properly solve the crime,” police officers “manufactured evidence that implicated” Ott and withheld from him and prosecutors “evidence that was both exculpatory and material.”
Specifically, there was a witness who saw Payne with a black male other than Ott just before she was murdered, and the madam at the prostitution/drug house reportedly confessed to having Payne killed. Based solely on the testimony of Gwin and Hadaway, Ott was convicted and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 50 years.
In 2002 the Wisconsin Innocence Project successfully petitioned for a DNA profile from the vaginal swabs taken from Payne’s body. The profile did not match Ott, Gwin, Hadaway or any of the four men Payne had interacted with just prior to her death. Running the DNA through a crime database connected it to several murders that had occurred after Ott’s arrest, but that information was not disclosed to him for another four years.
When he was informed the DNA profile from the crime scene did not match his and was connected to at least eight other murders, he moved for a new trial, which was granted. Ott was released on January 8, 2009 and the charges against him were dismissed in June 2009 after the DNA was linked to serial killer Walter E. Ellis, the “North Side Strangler,” who died while serving multiple life sentences in 2013. [See: PLN, Aug. 2010, p.14].
The City of Milwaukee agreed to the $6.5 million settlement on March 31, 2015, and Ott’s lawsuit was dismissed by agreement in October 2015 after the settlement was approved by the city’s Common Council. See: Ott v. City of Milwaukee, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 2:09-cv-00870-RTR.
Previously, in 2010, the State Claims Board had awarded Ott $25,000 – the statutory maximum – for the more than 12 years he served in prison. The paltry sum led to calls for Wisconsin to revise its compensation policy for people who are wrongfully convicted; currently, the state ranks last in the nation for the amount of compensation provided – $5,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment with a cap of $25,000. A bill that would have increased the compensation passed in the state Assembly but stalled in the Senate in February 2016.
Additional sources: Wisconsin State Journal, www.wpr.org
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Related legal case
Ott v. City of Milwaukee
|U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 2:09-cv-00870-RTR.