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Police in Milwaukee say a suspected serial killer avoided arrest for more than a decade, and they say he did that because of a mislabeled DNA sample. Wisconsin officials are now reviewing the state's DNA data bank, gathering and verifying thousands of samples they thought were already in the system. Other states are checking their own DNA systems.
Gil Halsted of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.
GIL HALSTED: This is a story about how 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 claimed to be Ellis. But 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.
Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch says the deadly snafu resulted from a breakdown in communications between the two agencies responsible for handling DNA samples.
Mr. RICK RAEMISCH (Secretary, Wisconsin Department of Corrections): Within a very short period, it was discovered that a sample was given under another individual's name. Unfortunately, that information was not given back to us by the Department of Justice, so it basically sat there for, frankly, for years.
HALSTED: Fast forward to this September, when 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 and it matched those found on the bodies of nine women. Ellis is now charged with the murder of seven of them. Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle says the fatal glitch was the result of too few people trying to gather too much DNA.
Governor JIM DOYLE (Democrat, Wisconsin): There were large sweeps of the prison system. In one month, they took 19,000 samples. DNA, you don't just go and take a little sample, 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.
HALSTED: But it's not only Ellis who may have slipped through the cracks in the DNA data bank. The state now says as many as 14,000 other inmates or probationers never submitted samples. Law enforcement officials are trying to track them down now, 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 for a crime he didn't commit. He says he wants someone held accountable.
Mr. CHAUNTE OTT (Convicted Prisoner): They'd 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. And it's quite obvious to, I believe, for them to admit responsibility and just let the true facts come out as they will, you know, instead of hiding and trying to whitewash everything.
HALSTED: Wisconsin Innocence Project director Keith Findley says the error that led to Ott's conviction will likely prompt them to re-open other cases where DNA is a key factor in an inmate's claim of innocence.
Mr. KEITH FINDLEY (Director, Wisconsin Innocence Project): This has shown that the system is fallible, and people are going to be making inquiries into that and challenges based on that.
HALSTED: Forty-five 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.
For NPR News, I'm Gil Halsted in Milwaukee.
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