When lies lead to wrongful convictions: Wisconsin lacks standards for policing incentivized testimony
In his third round of questioning, Sammy Hadaway confessed.
After being held in a Milwaukee jail for several days in 1995, he told detectives that he saw his friend, Chaunte Ott, rape and murder a 16-year-old runaway named Jessica Payne.
Hadaway — who has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and brain damage and is referred to in medical records as a “poor historian” — said he robbed Payne before Ott raped and killed her.
The biggest problem with the confession: It was all a lie, one Hadaway now says he told police to avoid a homicide conviction that could have landed him behind bars for the rest of his life.
“I was like, 'Okay, he did it' and I repeated the story (police) told me,” Hadaway, now 38, said in an interview.
Based largely on Hadaway's testimony — and that of another informant who avoided prosecution — a jury convicted Ott in 1996 of first-degree intentional homicide. He was sentenced to life in prison. As part of a deal, Hadaway pleaded guilty to robbery and received a five-year prison sentence.
It was a case made through incentivized testimony, proffered by informants who had something to gain by cooperating with police.
Such individuals, often labeled “snitches,” are seen by many criminal justice experts as a weak link in the justice system — and as a leading source of wrongful convictions.
'INVITING WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS'
Wisconsin has no specific policies regarding the use of informant testimony, which worries some state and national criminal justice experts.
“A state that has no protections against witnesses who are compensated for their testimony is inviting wrongful convictions,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and author of an award-winning book on the dangers of criminal informant testimony.
Natapoff counts at least 10 other states that have taken steps toward regulating informant testimony or requiring that a person cannot be convicted based on the testimony of an accomplice unless that testimony is corroborated by other evidence.
The alternative, Natapoff says, is that more innocent people will be ensnared by police and prosecutors.
Four years after Ott was convicted, attorneys at the Wisconsin Innocence Project began working on his case. The Innocence Project, a University of Wisconsin Law School program that investigates allegations of wrongful convictions, called for DNA testing of the semen collected from Payne's body.
The DNA evidence, which excluded both Ott and Hadaway as possible contributors, matched a convicted serial killer named Walter Ellis who strangled and killed at least seven women between 1986 and 2007.
Two of Ellis' victims were found in the same neighborhood where Payne's body was discovered — one of them just a few houses away. Ellis, who will remain in prison for the rest of his life, has never been charged in Payne's killing.
Ott was released in 2009 after serving more than 12 years in prison. A year later, the state Claims Board agreed to pay Ott $25,000, the maximum allowance for persons wrongfully convicted in Wisconsin.
Hadaway's conviction, however, stands. With help from the Innocence Project, he is filing a motion to effectively undo his felony conviction.
Natapoff says that while some cases illuminate a single issue, Hadaway's story runs the gamut of problems that stem from the use of incentivized witnesses.
“It includes a lying snitch, law enforcement that didn't test DNA evidence and a false confession by a psychologically vulnerable individual,” Natapoff says. “It sums it all up in one terrible bundle.”
A STAPLE OF LAW ENFORCEMENT
“Perjury or false accusations” were a factor in 17 out of 31 exonerations in Wisconsin since 1989, according to The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions.
Wisconsin Department of Justice spokeswoman Dana Brueck says the DOJ does not track how often criminal informants are used at trial, nor how often their testimonies are a determining factor in criminal convictions.
Natapoff says such a lack of data is typical nationwide: “Nobody really knows the extent of the problem because the government doesn't keep track, and we don't require them to.”
Most of the time, Natapoff says, cases involving informants are settled without a case going to trial. And that makes it harder to gauge the scope of the problem.
'DOING MORE GOOD THAN IT IS HARM'
Rick Coad, a Madison-based criminal defense attorney with experience in federal court, says informant testimony has become a pillar of drug cases and often involves “people that would do anything to save their own hide. You can understand why they would provide false information.”
Lt. Brian Ackeret of the Madison Police Department says police get useful information from a variety of sources, ranging from concerned family members to confidential informants to people in jail seeking leniency from the justice system.
He says that while investigators have no authority to make promises, they can approach prosecutors to let them know witnesses have cooperated, which can weigh in their favor.
“Do we need to recognize that there are potential problems with confidential informant testimony?” Ackeret asks. “Yes, but I'd say overall the system is doing more good than it is harm.”
Indeed, jailhouse informant testimony can be used to catch criminals, sometimes preemptively.
In July 2012, several inmates at Grant County jail came forward with information that Robert J. VanNatta, 45, was offering a truck, a four-wheeler and a lawnmower in exchange for killing his estranged wife to keep her from testifying against him.
VanNatta was eventually convicted of resisting or obstructing a police officer in connection to the case.
'PATIENT IS A POOR HISTORIAN'
Innocence Project attorneys say that Hadaway's intellectual disabilities call into question the validity of his testimony, and that the pressures of interrogation caused a psychologically vulnerable individual to confess to a crime he did not commit.
There is no evidence that Hadaway was evaluated by a psychiatrist before he testified against Ott, but medical records from 2009 tell the story of an individual with notable physical and intellectual limitations.
Hadaway has had cerebral palsy, and has suffered seizures since birth, the records indicate. He forgets to take his anti-seizure medication, he smacks his lips, he loses consciousness for minutes at a time, then awakes feeling groggy and confused — so confused he once ran through the streets naked, pounding on cars with his fists.
His “developmental milestones are a little slow compared to his counterparts,” according to medical records compiled at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee. “Patient is a poor historian.”
LEGACY OF REGRET
In April, Hadaway stood on an overpass near where, he was told, authorities discovered Jessica Payne's body.
Like so many men who have been released from prison, he returned to a life framed by poverty. With every job application he submits, he is haunted by his felony conviction.
After his release, he says he worked temporarily in Milwaukee for a church, Holy Redeemer, and then at a Walgreens. He is now unemployed, surviving on food stamps and Social Security checks.
Around his neighborhood, he is known as a snitch, and he says people who know about the case want nothing to do with him.
He regrets testifying against his former friend Ott, but understands why people in such situations lie to authorities in order to help themselves.
“To be free,” he says. “To be out. There's a lot of people in jail for something they didn't do but somebody else said they did.”
Hadaway has not spoken to Ott since he testified against him, but said he was happy when he heard his former friend was exonerated.
If he were to see Ott on the street, there is one thing he would like to say.
“I'm sorry,” Hadaway says tearfully. “I'd tell him I'm sorry.”
Reporter Mario Koran wrote this story while working as a paid reporting intern for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. For six months he also worked with the Wisconsin Innocence Project, where he received academic credits for helping to investigate cases and research criminal informant testimony.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.