Wrongful conviction to cost city
$6.5 million will go to man imprisoned for 13 years.
By: Bruce Vielmetti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: March 31st, 2015
The City of Milwaukee announced Tuesday it will pay $6.5 million to a man who was wrongfully convicted of a 1995 homicide and spent 13 years in prison before DNA linked the case to serial killer Walter Ellis.
Chaunte Ott filed a federal civil rights lawsuit after his release in 2009, claiming that Milwaukee police detectives pressured witnesses into testifying falsely that they had been with Ott during the murder of Jessica Payne, a 16–year-old runaway.
“Lawsuits based on events occurring nearly two decades ago present hurdles that make defending such cases exceptionally difficult,” read a statement released by the city late Tuesday.
The case had been scheduled to begin trial in Milwaukee federal court last week. A similar suit from another man wrongly convicted of killing someone later linked to Ellis remains pending.
“Our client is obviously not going to get back the 13 years that were unjustly taken from him, but we appreciate the city’s agreement to provide fair compensation,” said Jon Loevy, one of Ott‘s attorneys.
“Chaunte continues to rebuild his life, working and enjoying time with his family.“
Ott, now 40, won his freedom with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which began working on his case years earlier. In 2007, it was learned that DNA taken from the Payne crime scene did not match Ott or the two men who had testified against him, both of whom later recanted.
It did match DNA taken from two other· murdered women, one of whom Ellis was later convicted of killing. Still, it took two more years for Ott to leave prison.
When Ott was freed, then Milwaukee police spokesman Anne E. Schwarz said police still believed he was responsible for Payne‘s death. Prosecutors later that year decided not to retry Ott for the crime.
Ellis never was charged with Payne‘s death, though he ultimately pleaded no contest to killing seven other women around Milwaukee over 21 years. Even at his sentencing, Ellis never spoke about the crimes. He died in prison in December 2013.
In its release, the city noted that similar wrongful conviction cases against other cities have led to jury awards of $2 million per year of imprisonment, and called the $6.5 million “less than half of a potential verdict“ for Ott‘s 13 years, plus legal fees and costs.
Loevy confirmed his law firm would have sought at least $12 million from a jury but also acknowledged there would have been “considerable risk” for both sides.
Ellis pleaded no contest to strangling his victims from 1986 to 2007. A couple of the crimes occurred while he was living at a halfway house and some after he worked as a government informant.
One happened after Ellis should have submitted a DNA sample to the state’s DNA databank in 2001. Instead, he got a fellow inmate already convicted of a sex crime to submit a DNA sample in his name. The disparity was spotted but never fixed, leaving Ellis‘ DNA out of the state databank.
A look back at that bureaucratic bungle led to a review of the state‘s databank and the discovery that the DNA of some 12,000 felons was missing from the registry.
That led to more review, and efforts to collect DNA from thousands of people who had already finished their prison terms, and even a few hundred who had completed supervision.
The Milwaukee County district attorney even re-examined 2,100 homicide cases going back to 1992, looking for others that may have been flawed because of missing or wrong DNA. It found only the ones already tied to the Ellis investigation.
William D. Avery, another man wrongly convicted of a homicide later linked to Ellis, spent six years in prison. He also sued Milwaukee police and the city. That case is set for trial in June in federal court.
On Wednesday, a new state law takes effect that mandates collection of DNA from anyone arrested for certain felonies and those convicted of felonies and misdemeanors. It is expected to add 68,000 samples to the state DNA databank in the first year, according to the Department of Justice. Before, DNA was taken only from people convicted of felonies.
All the victims Ellis was convicted of killing were African-American prostitutes. Payne was a white 16-year-old junior at South Milwaukee High School. Her body was found behind a vacant home on the north side of Milwaukee in August 1995. Her throat was slashed, and it appeared she might have been raped.
At the time prosecutors declined to retry Ott, Payne’s stepmother said she still believed he was responsible, though she didn’t expect prosecutors to try him again. A retrial would have been complicated not only by the DNA evidence but also by the fact that two key state witnesses had recanted the testimony and one had died.
The Payne case remains an open investigation.