Judge orders 1 trial in Wisconsin serial killings

AP News
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Posted: Dec 23, 2009 4:21 PM

A Wisconsin man accused of killing seven women will be tried for all their deaths at once instead of in seven separate trials as his defense attorney requested, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Walter E. Ellis, 49, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree intentional homicide and first-degree murder charges in the deaths of the women from 1986 to 2007. A conviction would carry a mandatory life sentence, although a judge could decide whether to allow the possibility for parole.

Defense attorney Russell Jones had asked a judge to separate the cases. Separate trials usually favor defendants because prosecutors are more limited in their ability to provide evidence linking the cases. When they're lumped together, jurors can see all the evidence at once.

Judge Rebecca Dallet ruled the cases could be tried together because the deaths were similar in circumstance and location.

All seven victims were strangled, some with a rope or clothing. One was also stabbed. Police say all were prostitutes.

Jones had argued that the women were strangled in different enough manners to merit separate trials. He pointed out some were found indoors and some were outside. Some were dressed, while others were found nude.

He said only DNA evidence tied the cases together and it only proves Ellis had sex with the women _ not that he killed them.

Jones also said the slayings occurred over too long a period of time _ 21 years _ with 10 years elapsing between the first and second cases.

Dallet said there were enough other factors to outweigh that argument, including the fact that some killings occurred within days or months of each other.

Jones said he was disappointed by Dallet's ruling, but "we will still be prepared to defend Mr. Ellis."

Assistant district attorney Norm Gahn called the judge's ruling "reasonable."

A handful of one victim's relatives hugged and laughed outside the courtroom after the hearing. Mansa Miller, 38, whose sister Tanya Miller was killed in 1986, said he was glad jurors would get to see all the evidence against Ellis in a single trial.

"This way a better picture gets painted," Miller said. "And it's the whole picture that needs to be looked at, not just the pieces."

Ellis is charged with five counts of first-degree intentional homicide for the deaths that occurred since 1992. He also faces two counts of first-degree murder for two deaths in 1986, the charges reflecting the law then. Other than their names, the charges are identical.

Jones has hinted that his defense will question whether Ellis can be considered the killer simply because his DNA was found on the women.

That argument loses persuasiveness now that the cases will be tried together, said Janine Geske, a professor at Marquette University law school.

"If you only had one victim, that argument might be able to create reasonable doubt," Geske said. "But when you have a series, it makes it that much harder. You'd have to explain how his DNA ended up on all these women who later turned up dead."

Dallet ruled in favor of the defense on a separate issue, telling prosecutors they couldn't introduce evidence suggesting Ellis had a violent history. Prosecutors wanted jurors to hear allegations that Ellis choked and abused other women.

Those allegations weren't relevant enough to the homicide charges because the alleged victims survived and also because some had long-term relationships with Ellis, which the homicide victims apparently did not, Dallet said.

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Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.