Wisconsin Needs to Implement Standards to Prevent Incentivized Testimony


Chaunte Ott spent more than 12 years behind bars in Wisconsin for a murder he didn’t commit before DNA proved his innocence. Ott was convicted in 1996 based largely on the incentivized testimony from Sammy Hadaway, who, after being held in a Milwaukee jail for several days, told detectives he saw his friend, Ott, rape and murder a young woman. According to Hadaway, who has brain damage, his statement was a big lie he told police in order to avoid a homicide conviction.


On Sunday, the

Wisconsin State Journal

reported that Hadaway and another informant who avoided prosecution testified to robbing 16-year-old runaway Jessica Payne before Ott raped and killed her. By cooperating with the police, Hadaway avoided life in prison and received a five-year prison sentence for pleading guilty to robbery.


Jailhouse informants, suspects like Hadaway who give incentivized testimony, are seen as a weak link in the justice system. In Wisconsin, there is no record of how often informant testimony is used in convictions, and there are no policies in place to safeguard the use of such testimony.


“ ‘A state that has no protections against witnesses who are compensated for their testimony is inviting wrongful convictions,’ said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and expert on criminal informant testimony.”


According to Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, incentivized witnesses were a factor in 45 percent of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases nationwide between 1973 and 2005. At least 10 states have taken steps toward regulating informant testimony or have rules barring convictions based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice, according to Natapoff.


The Wisconsin Innocence Project began working on Ott’s case four years after his conviction and immediately requested DNA testing of the semen collected from Payne’s body. According to the

Wisconsin State Journal

, the results excluded both Ott and Hadaway and matched a convicted serial killer, Walter Ellis, who strangled and killed at least seven women between 1986 and 2007.


Ott’s conviction was overturned in 2009, and the Wisconsin Innocence Project is now working on overturning Hadaway’s felony conviction. Natapoff said this case highlights many problems in the justice system. “ ‘It includes a lying snitch, law enforcement that didn’t test DNA evidence and a false confession by a psychologically vulnerable individual,’ Natapoff said. ‘It sums it all up in one terrible bundle.’ ”


While Hadaway’s attorneys fight to clear his name, he has lived in poverty since his release from prison. Each time he applies for a job, he is reminded of the felony conviction that changed his life.


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