Appeals panel sides with Innocence Project client in case linked to North Side Strangler serial killer
By Gretchen Schuldt
A man sentenced to five years in prison two decades ago should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea after showing convincing evidence that a serial killer was actually responsible for a murder police accused him of participating in, an appeals court panel ruled Tuesday.
The real killer very likely was Walter Ellis, known as the Milwaukee North Side Strangler, who was responsible for a string of rapes and killings in the city.
The panel overturned a decision by Milwaukee County Circuit Judge M. Joseph Donald, threw out the conviction of Sammy Joseph Hadaway, and sent the case back to Circuit Court.
Donald was the judge who heard and rejected Hadaway's post-conviction motion to withdraw his plea. The appeals court, in a decision written by Appeals Judge Timothy G. Dugan, ruled that had trial judge Diane Sykes known all the facts of the case revealed after the case was over, she would not have accepted the plea.
Hadaway was convicted of attempted robbery after reaching a plea agreement.
Hadaway, now 34, has severe cognitive and intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy and seizure disorders. He was arrested in October 1995 in connection with the death of Jessica Payne.
Payne, a runaway prostitute, was found beneath a mattress in the back yard of a north side Milwaukee house, according to Dugan's decision, joined by Appeals Judges Joan F. Kessler and William W. Brash III.
"Her throat had been slashed, her bra had been torn, and her pants had been pulled down to her ankles. The evidence suggested that she had been sexually assaulted," Dugan wrote.
Police collected physical evidence from the scene, including vaginal swabs that revealed semen. Tests of the swabs proved inconclusive.
A month later, a jailhouse snitch told police that Richard Gwin had implicated himself in the murder of a white woman.
Gwin, Dugan wrote, told police that he drove the victim, Hadaway, and a man named Chaunte Ott, to an abandoned building. The three got out of the car and Hadaway and Ott came back a short time later, without Payne.
Gwin said he asked where the girl was, and Hadaway responded, “she didn’t have no money so [Ott] cut her throat.”
Gwin later recanted his confession. His sister said Gwin tld her that police put "severe pressure" on him during the investigation, the decision said.
Hadaway's interrogation by police continued over several days. At first Hadaway denied knowing any white girls at all and said he never met Payne.
Hadaway was formally arrested in October 1995. He later said that when police interviewed him, they "regularly threatened" that he would be raped in prison, Dugan wrote.
Hadaway later said "the police played 'nice cop/bad cop' and yelled at him and scared him, and told him that 'he would do eighty years' if he did not implicate Ott," Dugan wrote. "The police promised Hadaway that if he implicated Ott, he would serve five years in prison instead of eighty years. The police also shared the details of the murder with Hadaway, and showed him Gwin’s statements."
Police also told Hadaway what to say, Dugan wrote.
"After two days of interrogation, Hadaway gave a confession regarding Ott and his involvement with Payne," he wrote. He said he and Ott attempted to rob Payne, then Ott sexually assaulted Payne and killed her."
The detectives who interviewed Hadaway did not record notes in their memo books, Dugan wrote.
"Instead, they took notes during witness interviews—including their interviews of Gwin and Hadaway—on steno pads, and then destroyed the notes," Dugan wrote. "Further, no record was ever made of the first one and one-half hours of the detectives’ October 27, 1995 interrogation of Hadaway."
Ott was arrested, tried and convicted of first-degree murder, despite a complete lack of physical evidence linking him or any individual to the crime.
In a plea deal, Hadaway pleaded guilty to attempted robbery and served five years in prison.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project took on the case in 2002 and requested retesting of the swabs taken from Payne. The new tests excluded all three men – Gwin, Hadaway, and Ott – as the source of the semen found at the murder scene. The semen, in fact, did not match any profile known at the time.
Later, in 2007, the state matched the sample to semen collected during two other murder investigations, also on the city's north side. Ott could not have committed those murders – he was locked up at the time.
That same year, Ott filed a motion for a new trial based on the DNA evidence in the Payne case. He was denied and appealed. He cited several new pieces of evidence including recantations by Hadaway and Gwin of their earlier statements. Both attributed the recanted statements to police pressure.
Ott's conviction was eventually reversed by the Court of Appeals and the state dismissed all charges against him. A state board found “clear and convincing evidence” that Ott was innocent of the crime.
Ott eventually sued the City of Milwaukee and several officers for violating his rights. He received $6.5 million under a settlement.
The state, meanwhile, matched the DNA from all the three north side murders to Ellis, a serial killer who raped and murdered at least eight other women besides Payne. Those women were found in the same neighborhood as Payne, and their murders had several similarities to Payne's slaying.
Ellis was arrested in September 2009 and eventually pleaded no contest to seven murders. He was sentenced to seven consecutive life terms. He died in prison in 2013.
The state, in opposing Hadaway's request to withdraw his plea, argued that the DNA linked to Ellis and the clearing of Ott's name was irrelevant to whether Hadaway was guilty of attempted robbery.
The appeals panel disagreed.
"We conclude that, based on the new facts regarding the presence of Ellis’s DNA on Payne’s body and the presence of Ellis’s DNA and his involvement in the murders of seven women committed in the same vicinity that also have several other characteristics of Payne’s murder, Hadaway has presented clear and convincing evidence that if known by the trial court, would have prevented it from accepting his guilty plea," Dugan wrote.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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