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Chaunte Ott

Other Wisconsin Cases with Innocence Organization Involvement
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On August 30, 1995, the body of Jessica Payne, a 16-year-old runaway, was discovered in the area behind two houses—one vacant and the other a known location to obtain drugs—in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her throat was slashed, her shirt was partially raised, and her pants were pulled down to her ankles.

An autopsy indicated a possibility that Payne had been sexually assaulted before she bled to death. A rape kit, including vaginal swabs, was collected and semen was determined to be present.

One month after the discovery of Payne’s body, an inmate at the Milwaukee County jail told authorities that a man named Richard Gwin was involved in a young white woman’s murder. Gwin made a statement implicating himself and two others–20-year-old Sammy Hadaway and 21-year-old Chaunte Ott—in Payne’s murder.

Gwin told police that in the early morning hours of August 27, 1995, he was driving his car accompanied by Hadaway, Ott, and Payne. He said he parked in front of an abandoned residence where they listened to the radio, drank alcohol, and smoked marijuana. Gwin said that at some point Hadaway, Ott, and Payne left the car and walked through the alley between two houses, out of sight. Not long after, Hadaway returned to the car, followed by Ott five minutes later. Gwin said that when he asked about Payne, Hadaway said that they had tried to rob her and when her pockets were empty, Ott cut her throat.

On October 24, 1995, police took Hadaway to the Milwaukee police detective bureau. Hadaway suffered from cerebral palsy, which left him with cognitive and physical deficiencies. He denied any involvement in the murder. He told police that he didn’t know any white girls at all (Payne was white). He was shown a photograph of Payne and he said he had never seen her before. He agreed to give samples of his hair, blood, and saliva.

Hadaway was released, but the following day, police questioned him again. He continued to deny knowledge of the crime. Police questioned him again the next day, October 26, 1995. He again denied involvement.

Nonetheless, on October 27, the police arrested Hadaway for the murder and attempted robbery of Payne. Not long after he was taken to the jail, Hadaway asked to speak once more to the detectives. He was brought to the police station where he waived his right to an attorney by signing an “X” on the waiver signature line.

During this fourth meeting, detectives showed him the photograph of Payne and Hadaway said he recognized her. Detectives said Hadaway said that he, Gwin, Ott, and Payne rode around in Gwin’s car. He, Ott, and Payne got out of the car at an abandoned building. Ott, according to Hadaway, fought with Payne and then ordered Hadaway to hold her as Ott went through her pockets. Hadaway said Ott then tried to rape her and when Payne resisted, Ott choked her and slashed her throat.

Five days later, on November 1, 1995, detectives brought Hadaway back to the station, gave him his Miranda warning, and took a statement that tracked his oral statement. None of these interrogations was recorded.

On November 3, 1995, police arrested Ott for the murder and attempted robbery. Officers searched his home and confiscated two box cutters and a knife.

In February 1995, Ott went to trial in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. Hadaway and Gwin, who was never charged in the case, testified for the prosecution and related the same account to the jury.

The prosecution’s physical evidence consisted of the two box cutters and the knife. Dr. Richard Teggatz, the medical examiner who performed Payne’s autopsy, estimated that Payne had died 48 to 60 hours before her body was discovered—which matched the timeframe described by Gwin and Hadaway. Teggatz ruled out one of the box cutters as the murder weapon and testified that it was unlikely the other box cutter was used. As for the knife, he said that it was consistent with the murder weapon because it had a sharp edge and Payne’s wounds were inflicted by a sharp-edged weapon. No blood was found on the knife or the box cutters.

On March 2, 1996, a jury convicted Ott of first-degree murder and attempted robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 50 years.

On March 4, 1996, Hadaway pled guilty in Milwaukee County Circuit Court to attempted robbery. He was sentenced to five years in prison and was released on August 31, 1999.

On February 24, 1998, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld Ott’s convictions and sentence.

In 2000, the Wisconsin Innocence Project began re-investigating Ott’s case and filed a motion seeking DNA testing on semen from the rape kit collected during Payne’s autopsy. The motion was granted in 2002, and the Wisconsin state police crime lab developed a male profile that excluded Ott. The profile also excluded Hadaway, Gwin, and all other men known to be in the company of Payne on the day of the murder. The DNA profile was submitted to the FBI DNA database, but no match was found.

The prosecution contended that the exclusion did not exonerate Ott since he had not been convicted of sexually assaulting Payne, and he remained in prison.

In 2007, prosecution discovered that the male DNA profile obtained from the Payne rape kit matched a DNA profile from two unsolved murders in the same neighborhood where Payne was killed. One victim’s body was found in 1997, a few houses from the house where Payne’s body had been found two years earlier. The other victim was found 10 years later, a few blocks from the location of Payne’s body.

As a part of a re-investigation of the Payne murder, police re-interviewed Hadaway. He admitted that he lied to police about what happened and said he lied because “the detectives were playing nice cop-bad cop.” He said the detectives yelled at him and told him that he would be imprisoned for 80 years if he did not implicate Ott.

Hadaway also said that he learned most of the details of the crime from police and made up the rest. Everything he said on the witness stand at Ott’s trial, he said, “was a lie.”

The Wisconsin Innocence Project moved for a new trial for Ott based on this new evidence. The prosecution argued that the evidence presented at trial was strong, and that the new evidence didn’t raise any doubt about Ott’s guilt. The trial judge denied the motion. On December 23, 2008, however, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals overturned Ott’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

Two weeks later, on January 8, 2009, Ott was released on bond. On June 5, 2009, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office dismissed the charges.

In September 2009, the DNA profile found in the three murders was matched to Walter Ellis. Ellis had an extensive criminal record that included arrests or convictions for solicitation of prostitutes, battery, reckless endangerment, theft, drug possession, and robbery. As a result, Ellis, whom the media labeled the “Northside Strangler,” was charged with seven counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of seven women from 1986 to 2007.

Ellis was not charged with Payne’s death. He was also linked by DNA to another murder (also not charged) for which William Avery was wrongly convicted and subsequently exonerated. Ultimately, in 2011, Ellis pled no contest to the seven murders and was sentenced to seven consecutive life prison terms. He died in prison in December 2013.

Ott later received $25,000 in compensation from the State of Wisconsin, the maximum the state allows. He also filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit that was settled in March 2015 when the city of Milwaukee agreed to pay $6.5 million.

In March 2017, Wisconsin Innocence Project lawyers filed a petition for Hadaway seeking to vacate his conviction. In May 2017, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Donald denied the petition.

Hadaway’s attorney, Steven Wright, appealed the ruling and on August 14, 2018, the Wisconsin Court Appeals granted the petition and allowed Hadaway to withdraw his guilty plea and ordered a new trial. On October 8, 2018, the prosecution agreed to dismiss the case.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 10/9/2018
State:Wisconsin
County:Milwaukee
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempt, Violent
Reported Crime Date:1995
Convicted:1996
Exonerated:2009
Sentence:Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:21
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes