Milwaukee (AP) — The City of Milwaukee would pay $6.5 million to a man wrongly convicted of a 1995 murder, under a proposed settlement filed Tuesday.
The Milwaukee city attorney filed a proposed resolution asking the Common Council to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Chaunte Ott. Ott spent 13 years in prison before DNA linked the case to a convicted serial killer.
“Lawsuits based on events occurring nearly two decades ago present hurdles that make defending such cases exceptionally difficult,” according to a statement released by the city late Tuesday.
Ott filed his lawsuit after his release in 2009. He claimed that Milwaukee police detectives pressured witnesses into testifying falsely that they had been with Ott during the murder of 16-year-old runaway Jessica Payne. DNA eventually linked the case to convicted Wisconsin serial killer Walter Ellis.
Ellis never was charged with Payne’s death, although he ultimately pleaded no contest to killing seven other women around Milwaukee over 21 years and was sentenced to life in prison.
Ott, now 40, won his freedom with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project. In 2007, it was learned that DNA taken from the Payne crime scene did not match Ott or the two men who had testified against him, both of whom later recanted. It did match DNA taken from two other murdered women, one of whom Ellis was later convicted of killing.
Ott’s lawsuit had been scheduled to go to trial March 23, according to court records.
“Our client is obviously not going to get back the 13 years that were unjustly taken from him, but we appreciate the city’s agreement to provide fair compensation,” Ott’s attorney, Jon Loevy, said. “Chaunte continues to rebuild his life, working and enjoying time with his family.”
In its release, the city noted that similar wrongful conviction cases against other cities have led to jury awards of $2 million per year of imprisonment, and called the $6.5 million “less than half of a potential verdict” for Ott’s 13 years, plus legal fees and costs.
Loevy confirmed his law firm would have sought at least $12 million from a jury, but also acknowledged there would have been “considerable risk” for both sides.
Ellis should have submitted a DNA sample to Wisconsin’s DNA databank in 2001, but authorities have said Ellis got a fellow inmate already convicted of a sex crime to submit a DNA sample in his name. The disparity was spotted but never fixed, leaving Ellis’ DNA out of the state data bank.