Chaunte Ott served more than 12 years in Wisconsin prisons for a murder he didn’t commit before DNA testing obtained by the Wisconsin Innocence Project proved his innocence and led to his release in early 2009. Ultimately, the murder was linked to Walter Ellis, a serial killer who was believed to have committed as many as six additional murders – including two after Ott was arrested.
On August 30, 1995, the body of Jessica Payne, a 16-year-old white runaway, was discovered in the area behind two houses – one vacant and the other a known location to obtain drugs. The victim’s throat was slashed, her shirt was partially raised, and her pants were around her ankles.
The Investigation and Identification
An autopsy indicated that Payne had possibly 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. Police arrested Gwin, who made a statement implicating himself and two others – Sam Hadaway and Chaunte Ott – in Payne’s murder. Gwin told police that in the early-morning hours of August 27, he was driving his car accompanied by Hadaway, Ott and Payne. He parked in front of an abandoned residence where they first remained in his vehicle conversing, listening to the radio, drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Gwin said that at some point Hadaway, Ott and Payne exited the vehicle and walked through the alley between the two residences and out of Gwin’s sightline. Soon, Hadaway returned to the car, followed by Ott five minutes later. When Gwin inquired about Payne’s whereabouts, Hadaway said that they had tried to rob Payne, but when her pockets were empty, Ott cut her throat.
Police proceeded to arrest Hadaway and Ott based on Gwin’s statement. Hadaway allegedly confirmed Gwin’s story, providing further details about the murder and confirming that Ott cut Payne’s throat. Hadaway described that Ott tried to rob Payne, grabbing her, and when she struggled, instructed Hadaway to hold her hands while he searched her pockets. When Ott found nothing to steal, he pushed her down onto a mattress, pulled down her pants, pulled up her shirt, and tried to force his way between her legs. Hadaway turned away, but looked back when he heard choking and gagging sounds to see that Payne’s throat was cut and blood was gushing from the wound. Hadaway said he then returned to the car, and Ott followed approximately five or 10 minutes later.
On November 3, 1995, police executed a search warrant at Ott’s home, where they discovered two box cutters and a knife among his possessions.
The Trial and Forensic Evidence
Both Gwin and Hadaway testified for the state at Ott’s trial, describing the same details to the jury. Gwin was not charged with any crime, and Hadaway accepted a plea agreement in exchange for his testimony against Ott. Hadaway pled guilty to attempted robbery and was sentenced to five years in prison.
The only physical evidence produced by the state at trial were the two box cutters and knife police discovered among Ott’s possessions. A medical examiner, Dr. Richard Teggatz, who performed Payne’s autopsy, estimated that Payne had died 48 to 60 hours before her body was discovered – which matched with the timeframe in the testimony from Gwin and Hadaway. Teggatz also ruled out one of the box cutters as the murder weapon and claimed that it was unlikely the other box cutter was used, but concluded that the knife could be consistent with the murder weapon, because the fatal injury required a sharp edge.
Ott was convicted by the jury and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 50 years.
Post-Conviction Appeals and Exoneration
On February 24, 1998, Ott’s initial appeals were dismissed and his convictions for first- degree intentional homicide and attempted robbery were affirmed. The Wisconsin Innocence Project began working with Ott in 2000, and requested post-conviction DNA testing on semen from the rape kit collected during Payne’s autopsy. The tests were granted in 2002 and the results excluded Ott as the contributor of the semen. Hadaway, Gwin and all other men known to be in the company of Payne on the day of the murder were also excluded. The DNA results did not exonerate Ott, however, as he had not been convicted of sexual assault. He would remain in prison for five more years.
In 2007, prosecutors informed the Wisconsin Innocence Project that the male DNA profile from semen collected during Payne’s autopsy had matched DNA found on the bodies of two other women murdered in the same neighborhood, both after 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. Semen collected from her body matched the DNA profile developed in the Payne case. The other victim was found 10 years later, a few blocks from the location of Payne’s body. Blood samples from the crime scene, including one from the victim’s bra, were tested. The DNA from this crime scene matched DNA from the other two crimes.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project filed for a new trial for Ott based on this new evidence, but the state opposed, arguing that the evidence presented at trial was strong and that the new evidence didn’t raise any doubt about Ott’s guilt. 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, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office announced it would not seek a new trial and Ott was freed. He had served 12 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
Ellis never was charged with Payne's death. He was also linked by DNA to a murder (though not charged) for which William Avery
was wrongly convicted and subsequently exonerated.
Ellis pled no contest to killing seven other women around Milwaukee over 21 years. Ellis 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.