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, days after authorities arrested a man whose DNA they say links him to the killing.
Chaunte D. Ott claims in the federal lawsuit that officers coerced two people to give false testimony and failed to intervene when 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 on Thursday. "But my attitude is, I've never been bitter. I feel like I just have to live each day."
The Oak Creek man was convicted in 1995 in the death of Jessica Payne, a 16-year-old runaway found partially nude with her throat slit.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project took up his case in 2002, and tests concluded that 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.
Prosecutors have reserved the right to refile charges against him. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm wouldn't comment Thursday on Ott's lawsuit or the status of Payne's case.
Authorities have now linked the DNA to Walter E. Ellis, 49, of Milwaukee. He was arrested Saturday after police and prosecutors said his DNA matched samples taken from Payne and at least eight women who were suspected prostitutes.
Ellis was charged with two counts of first-degree intentional homicide in the deaths of two of the other women, with more counts expected Thursday. Authorities haven't said who they believe killed Payne.
Ott's lawsuit 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. A jury had found him guilty, she noted in a statement Thursday, but the department acknowledged that investigative techniques are more refined now.
"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. She declined to comment further.
The city attorney did not immediately return a telephone message.
Ott, who said he didn't know Ellis, has maintained his innocence, even after being convicted and sentenced to life with a chance of parole after 50 years. He said he could have gotten 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."
The 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.
Loevy said it was "coincidental" that the lawsuit came days after Ellis was arrested.
The lawsuit said an inmate told authorities a man named Richard Gwin was involved in the murder of a young white woman. The suit claims police arrested him and coerced him to implicate two others — Ott and Sam Hadaway.
Loevy said Gwin, who is now dead, and Hadaway were improperly pressured into implicating Ott. Both men recanted their statements, the Innocence Project said.
Meanwhile, the suit said, police ignored witness accounts that suggested other men were seen with Payne immediately before she disappeared.
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 is now pursuing an associate's degree at Milwaukee Area Technical College, and he hopes to be 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."