Court says DNA tests cast doubt in 1995 slaying
New trial ordered as results stir worries about serial killer
By Meg Jones of the Journal Sentinel
Dec. 24, 2008
A state appellate court on Tuesday ordered a new trial for a Milwaukee man accused of murdering a South Milwaukee runaway in 1995 after tests showed DNA found on the victim matched DNA discovered on two other slaying victims, raising the specter of a serial killer at large.
Milwaukee police downplayed the possibility that a serial killer is targeting women on the near north side. But the defense attorney for the man serving a life sentence for the murder of Jessica Payne, 16, said the DNA tests showed his client was not guilty.
"This would mean they have an unknown predator, someone who got away with killing three women in a small section on the north side of the city," said Lew Wasserman, who handled the defense of Chaunte D. Ott during the 1996 trial.
Testing last year showed that semen found on Payne was from the same man who left DNA on Joyce Mims, 41. Mims was found strangled in June 1997 in a vacant home in the 2900 block of N. 5th St., only a few houses from where Payne was discovered with her throat cut almost two years earlier. Blood found on Ouithreaun Stokes, 30, who was murdered in 2007 not far from the other slaying scenes, was linked to the same unknown person.
All felons have been compelled to give a DNA sample in Wisconsin since 2000, according to the state Justice Department, creating a database to check evidence collected at crime scenes.
"Apparently, this would be someone who is not a convicted felon, and there's no DNA on file. That's what's really strange," Wasserman said.
End to 'nightmare'?
Police spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz pointed out that the DNA results do not mean Ott wasn't Payne's killer.
"We know the DNA that matches those two people indicates the same person was involved or at least present," she said. "But we are not working under the assumption that there's a serial killer preying on young women."
Ott, 35, who is at Columbia Correctional Institution, learned of the Court of Appeals decision Tuesday in a phone call from John Pray, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which has been working on his case since 2000.
"I think it took a little while to sink in; he was sort of speechless. He was so, so pleased that this nightmare could be ending real soon," said Pray, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School.
Payne ran away from home shortly before she would have started her junior year at South Milwaukee High School in 1995. On Aug. 30, her body was found behind a vacant home at N. 7th and W. Chambers streets.
A month later, Richard Gwin told police he had driven Payne, Ott and Sam Hadaway to an abandoned building, where he saw the three get out of the car and go behind the building. Hadaway and Ott returned to the car and told Gwin that Ott had killed Payne during an attempted robbery, according to court documents.
Ott was accused of first-degree intentional homicide, and at his trial, Gwin and Hadaway testified for the state. Hadaway, now 33, was charged with a lesser crime and sentenced to five years in prison. Gwin was murdered in 1997.
The DNA found on Payne didn't match Hadaway or Gwin.
Pray said Hadaway later recanted his testimony.
"In Sam's case, he was facing a murder charge, and the best way for him to get out of that was for him to tell officers he knew what was going on," Pray said.
Box cutters, knife
In his appeal, Ott challenged the credibility and motivation of Gwin and Hadaway.
The only physical evidence shown to the jury were two box cutters and a knife found at Ott's home. A medical examiner ruled out one of the box cutters as a murder weapon and said it was unlikely the other was used, but that the knife could have inflicted Payne's injuries. Yet Wasserman said that "no one else was able to say that's the murder weapon."
Regardless of the DNA results, Milwaukee police believe Ott killed Payne.
"Our homicide investigators are still convinced that Chaunte Ott was convicted on very strong evidence, and we still believe he was the killer in the Jessica Payne case," Schwartz said.
Bail hearing requested
Wisconsin Innocence Project officials have requested a bail hearing in an effort to free Ott while his case is pending.
The Milwaukee County district attorney's office has 30 days to petition the state Supreme Court to review the case, or it may schedule another trial or drop the case.
"At this point, we're still in the midst of evaluating the decision and don't want to comment on it now," said Kent Lovern, chief deputy district attorney. "We have to take a look at it and evaluate the impact of it and make a decision."
In arguing against Ott's appeal, prosecutors said conclusive and direct evidence was presented at the trial that Ott killed Payne, and that the DNA evidence didn't raise any doubts about his guilt. Prosecutors also disputed whether a new jury would find Ott not guilty.
Appellate judges disagreed and concluded that a jury weighing the recent DNA results and other evidence could have a reasonable doubt about Ott's guilt.
||Truth in Justice