By DINESH RAMDE
MILWAUKEE (AP) — A Milwaukee man convicted of killing seven women over a 21-year period is asking the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal of his convictions, a step his lawyer acknowledged was a “longshot.”
Walter Ellis pleaded no contest last year to charges of first-degree intentional homicide and first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. In a recent filing to the state’s high court, defense attorney Richard Hart said Ellis only pleaded no contest because he didn’t think he’d be able to get a fair trial.
Ellis had asked for a change of venue, citing the national publicity his case drew. He also wanted the cases to be tried separately, saying jurors might use evidence in one case to draw inferences in the other cases. The trial court judge denied both requests, and a court of appeals agreed with the judge’s logic.
Hart has now filed one last appeal, this time with the state Supreme Court. The justices will decide in the next few weeks whether to take the case.
“The odds of getting the Supreme Court to take the case is a longshot,” Hart said. “… We just want to make sure all of his possible rights are protected and that his case is appropriately litigated.”
Ellis reached a plea deal before his case went to trial. In his appeal request, Hart said Ellis only did so in part because he was skeptical that the state could find Milwaukee County witnesses who hadn’t already been influenced by the flood of pre-trial publicity.
“The trial court’s determination to deny the change of venue motion meant Ellis faced picking a jury in a county already hostile to him,” Hart wrote in the court filing. “This put him in a position where he did not have a chance.”
The homicides occurred between 1986 and 2007. All seven victims were strangled, either by hand or with a rope or clothing tied around their necks. One was also stabbed.
Ellis was arrested in 2009 after police said his DNA matched semen samples found on six victims and a blood sample on a can of pepper spray discovered at the scene of the seventh slaying. Authorities have said they began to focus on Ellis after his name surfaced in connection with a number of unsolved homicides.
Hart’s filing said Ellis should have been given seven separate trials rather than one. When the trial court denied that request, Ellis was “handcuffed” from defending each individual charge to a fair degree, Hart wrote.
Ellis’ case exposed flaws in the state’s process for collecting DNA from convicted felons. Ellis’ DNA was missing from a state database even though he should have submitted a sample during an earlier prison stint. Authorities said Ellis persuaded a fellow inmate to submit a DNA sample in his place.
Police have said that if a sample had been taken from Ellis at that time, they may have been able to track him down before the last slaying, in 2007.