Suit claims Milwaukee police coerced witnesses
By Dinesh Ramde
MILWAUKEE — A man who served 13 years in prison before his homicide conviction was overturned sued the city of Milwaukee and its police department Thursday, the same day authorities filed new charges against a man whose DNA they say was found on the victim.
Chaunte D. Ott, who was convicted in 1995 in the death of a 16-year-old runaway, claims in his federal lawsuit that officers coerced two people to give false testimony and failed to intervene when DNA tests after his conviction showed he did not commit the crime.
"I'm still kind of stunned they had audacity to proclaim I'm guilty of that crime," Ott, 35, told The Associated Press. "But my attitude is, I've never been bitter. I feel like I just have to live each day."
Authorities have now linked the DNA to Walter E. Ellis, 49, of Milwaukee. Police and prosecutors said his DNA matched samples taken from the runaway, Jessica Payne, and at least eight suspected prostitutes killed from 1986 to 2007.
Ellis, already facing two counts of first-degree intentional homicide, was charged Thursday with three more counts of first-degree intentional homicide and two counts of first-degree murder - the equivalent charge that was state law when the deaths occurred, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said.
Each charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Ellis' attorney, Alejandro Lockwood, did not return a message Thursday seeking comment.
Ellis has not been charged in Payne's slaying or in the death of one of the suspected prostitutes. While the other eight women were strangled, Payne was found partially nude with her throat slit.
A DNA profile from semen on Payne's body did not match Ott, the lawsuit said.
Chisholm said Thursday the investigation into Payne's death was continuing, but declined to speculate on whether charges would be filed in her killing.
Dawn Payne, Jessica's stepmother, said she didn't want to comment on the latest developments.
Chisholm wouldn't comment on the lawsuit filed by Ott. Prosecutors have reserved the right to refile charges against him.
Ott, who said he didn't know Ellis, has maintained his innocence. The Oak Creek man said he could have agreed to a 10-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, but he refused.
"I never regretted that decision," Ott said. "I knew the truth was going to come out sooner or later."
He was convicted in 1995. The Wisconsin Innocence Project took up his case in 2002, and tests concluded the DNA in the case didn't match his. Ott was freed in January after a state appeals court ruled that he deserved a new trial.
His lawsuit does not specify the damages sought. Ott's attorney, Jon Loevy, noted that in similar cases people have been awarded $1 million or more for each year of wrongful incarceration. The suit names as defendants the city, two former police chiefs and at least eight present and former detectives.
Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz said the department felt it had probable cause when it arrested Ott, and noted that a jury had found him guilty.
"We recognize that DNA technology evolved long after the trial was over that was sophisticated enough to prove that Ott did not have sex with the victim," she said in a statement. She declined to comment further.
The city attorney did not immediately return a telephone message.
Ott's sister, Pachion Carlson, said he missed out on the first 12 years of his nephew's life. She said their mother is very sick and Carlson had hoped he would be released in time for them to be together again.
"Our family has gone through a lot of pain," she said.
Loevy said two men were improperly pressured into implicating Ott. Both men recanted their statements, the Innocence Project said. Loevy also said the DNA profile taken from Payne's body matched profiles generated from at least two more homicides carried out while Ott was behind bars, but authorities didn't tell Ott.
Ott, who is pursuing an associate's degree at Milwaukee Area Technical College, hopes to become a counselor for at-risk teens. He said the lawsuit is about bringing justice to people mistreated by the system.
"There are other guys languishing in prison trying to get their voices heard," he said. "I feel like this is a chance for me to have a voice and tell people about the situation they're in."