DNA Mix-Up Kept Suspected Serial Killer Free

Tiara Cotton, left, and Koronoa Richmond cry during the preliminary hearing for Walter Ellis Wednesd i i

Tiara Cotton (left) and Koronoa Richmond cry during the preliminary hearing for Walter Ellis last month in Milwaukee. Cotton and Richmond are the daughters of Florence McCormick, one of Ellis' alleged victims. DNA errors allowed Ellis to evade arrest for years. Morry Gash/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Morry Gash/AP
Tiara Cotton, left, and Koronoa Richmond cry during the preliminary hearing for Walter Ellis Wednesd

Tiara Cotton (left) and Koronoa Richmond cry during the preliminary hearing for Walter Ellis last month in Milwaukee. Cotton and Richmond are the daughters of Florence McCormick, one of Ellis' alleged victims. DNA errors allowed Ellis to evade arrest for years.

Morry Gash/AP

In Milwaukee, police say a mislabeled DNA sample made it possible for a suspected serial killer to avoid arrest for more than a decade.

The man — now charged with seven murders — might have been arrested before some of the murders occurred if state officials hadn't lost his DNA sample.

The error revealed a gaping hole in Wisconsin's DNA data bank and is spurring state officials to gather and verify thousands of DNA samples they thought were already in the system. In all, as many as 12,000 samples may be missing. In addition, other states are searching for similar flaws in their system for collecting and storing DNA.

A DNA sample from a crime scene can be a double-edged sword. If it's matched correctly to a murderer, justice can be done. But if it's lost or mislabeled, an innocent man may end up in prison.

In 2000, when Wisconsin began collecting DNA samples from all convicted felons, Walter Ellis was serving time for beating his girlfriend with a hammer. He managed to avoid having his sample taken by bribing another inmate to have his mouth swabbed instead and claim to be Ellis.

By the time the fraud was discovered, Ellis had left prison and the state did not have his DNA on file. Milwaukee prosecutors now say Ellis went on to murder at least seven women over the next decade.

Years Of Error

Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch says the deadly error resulted from a breakdown in communications between the two agencies responsible for handling DNA samples.

"Within a very short period it was discovered that a sample was given under another individual's name," said Raemisch. "Unfortunately that information was not given back to us by the Department of Justice — so it basically sat there, frankly, for years."

This September, Milwaukee police linked an unknown DNA sample to nine different murders in the same Milwaukee neighborhood over the past 20 years. Ellis' name kept coming up in the investigations, so his DNA sample was taken.

It matched DNA found on the bodies of nine women.

Ellis is now charged in seven of the murders. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle says the fatal glitch was the result of too few people trying to gather too much DNA.

"There were large sweeps of the prison system. In one month they took 19,000 samples," said Ellis. "DNA [examiners] don't just go and take a little sample and throw it in a machine and have a number — it's a process that I think back in the early 2000s took several months to do."

More Investigations To Come

Others may have slipped through the cracks in the DNA data bank, too. The state now says as many as 14,000 other inmates or probationers never submitted DNA samples. Law enforcement officials are trying to track them down either in prison or on the street. But that offers little comfort to 35-year-old Chaunte Ott, who spent 13 years in prison for one of the murders now linked to Walter Ellis.

Ott was convicted in 1996 of killing 16-year-old Jessica Payne, although there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. With help from the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Ott was released in January. He is suing Milwaukee officials for the 13 years he spent in prison. He says he wants someone held accountable.

"Like for everyone during the procedures of court processes, they like for you to admit responsibility and they have yet to do that in this case," said Ott. "And it's quite obvious I [need for them] to admit responsibility and let the true facts come out as they will instead of hiding and trying to whitewash everything."

Keith Findley, director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, says the error that led to Ott's conviction will likely prompt a re-opening of other cases where DNA is a key factor in an inmate's claim of innocence.

"Anytime you find human error in the process and you find it on what appears to be a rather systematic level you are going to be opening the door to more searching inquiries and challenges based on that," said Findley.

As many as 45 states have DNA data banks linked to a federal system with DNA samples of convicted felons. At least one other state is facing problems similar to Wisconsin. Illinois has discovered more than 50,000 DNA samples that should have been collected, but never were.

Halsted reports for Wisconsin Public Radio.

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