The Walter Ellis case is still unfolding, but there are already lessons to be learned.
One of those lessons is that police agencies around the country are on the verge of connecting serial rapists and killers to many unsolved crimes, thanks to DNA and re-opening cold cases. The picture that is emerging of these men will change what we know about serial offenders.
It will also, hopefully, change some assumptions about what goes on in our justice system. Many people believe that we are too harsh on offenders, that people deserve one or two or five “second chances,” that rehabilitation works, and that minimum mandatory sentencing and “three-strikes” laws are too harsh.
The Walter Ellises of the world pretty much drive a stake into such preconceptions:
AP — MILWAUKEE — Walter Ellis was anything but unknown in his north side neighborhood in Milwaukee — a mix of condemned and run-down houses with some nicer, newer homes. Even as the bodies of suspected prostitutes began turning up in garbage bins and abandoned buildings near his home, the stocky Ellis had regular — sometimes violent, often friendly — interaction with neighbors and family, and more than a dozen run-ins with police.
If those run-ins were scrutinized, what would they tell us? How many times did some judge let him walk? How many times did a prosecutor decided it wasn’t worth sending him away for a few months?
Ellis was not a stranger to law enforcement, with 15 arrests since 1978.
How many times did he get first-offender status? Time served? Community counseling? Simply no prosecution at all? Would minimum mandatory laws or three-strikes laws have kept him off the streets?
He’s received probation or fines for burglary . . .
Probation for burglary. Nice. The DNA database “hit” lists are littered with rapists whose only prior convictions were for burglary, or drugs. Sometimes rapists were allowed to plead down to burglary when there was a rape but prosecutors didn’t feel the victim would be believed. Sometimes these men were caught entering or hiding in a house before they committed a planned sexual assault. For many decades, burglary was a commonly-known get-out-of-jail-fairly-free card for rapists.
So when a judge gives a burglar probation because “burglary isn’t a serious crime,” he or she may very well be letting a sex offender walk free. All residential burglars should be required to provide DNA samples. Too bad that didn’t happen before Walter Ellis murdered this woman, in 2007. Her murder, and others, could have easily been prevented:
[Ellis has] received probation or fines for . . . delivery of a controlled substance and retail theft. He also has faced charges of soliciting prostitutes, battery, robbery and recklessly endangering safety, all of which were later dismissed. He received a 3-year prison sentence for drug possession in 1981.
When you see a drug possession conviction, think about this: often offenders will agree to plead to drug offenses if other charges are dropped. Often, the drug charge is the one most easily proved, even though the offender is known to be responsible for other crimes. So when people claim that we live in a prison state because “X% of offenders are in prison for non-violent drug charges,” realize that a substantial percentage of these people committed other crimes. They just weren’t prosecuted for them.
It was in 1988 that [Walter Ellis] pleaded no contest to second-degree reckless injury. According to the criminal complaint, he hit his ex-girlfriend in the head several times with a claw hammer, causing her to get 30 staples and more than 22 stitches. The complaint said the woman woke and found him standing over her, smelling of alcohol and accusing her of cheating. She got out of bed, they struggled, and he hit her with the hammer, it said.
It looks like the AP got it wrong: it was 1998, not 1988. Attempted murder with severe physical injury. Good thing it was just a domestic, or else he might have gotten life in prison, you know? Ah, the magic of plea bargaining: attempted murder – domestic violence = second degree reckless injury = five years.
Police have said Ellis’ DNA matches that found on nine women ages 16 to 41 who were killed in a three-square-mile area from 1986 to 2007.
Wow. Too bad nobody in the courts took that claw-hammer-to-the-brain-thing very seriously.
Here is an excellent blog-post tracing Ellis’ crimes and incarcerations. The blogger, Kathee Baird, gets the offense dates right, unlike the AP. She observes:
Online court records show Ellis has been busted at least twelve times for crimes against people as well as property crimes and that he once lived near the area where many of the homicides occurred. It appears that every time that Ellis was incarcerated the strangulation killings on the north side subsided. Between 1987 and 1994 there were no homicides that fit the North Side Stranglers m.o. . . .
Back to the AP:
Ellis, sentenced to prison, was supposed to have DNA taken before he was released in 2001 under a state law that mandated taking samples from people convicted of a felony. The state Department of Corrections said it did take the sample, but the state Justice Department said it has no records showing they ever got it. On Wednesday, legislators demanded to know why the DNA sample never made it to crime analysts. If it had, police say, the case might have been solved before the last of the slayings occurred in 2007.
Our justice system is criminally lenient. We have a pathological contempt for rape victims: we still utterly lack the public will to put rapists away. What, you say? This must be an isolated case?
50,000 Felons Released Without Submitting DNA
CHICAGO – About 50,000 felons have been released from Illinois prisons and county probation systems without submitting DNA samples. Under Illinois law, every felon sentenced on or after Aug. 22, 2002, must provide DNA. The samples are stored in databases that can be used to link suspects to other cases. A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections says nearly 10,000 felons were released from state prisons without providing DNA. And Attorney General Lisa Madigan‘s office estimates county probation departments didn’t get samples from 40,000 additional felons due to delays in implementing the law. DuPage County State’s Attorney Joseph Birkett helped push for collecting DNA from felons. And he says the failure to get samples from all felons means “serial murderers and rapists have probably remained on the loose.”
Back to Milwaukee:
In 2006, Ellis pleaded guilty in a hit-and-run involving Carolyn S. Prophet, 57, of Milwaukee. Prophet, who is disabled and has problems walking, said Ellis hit her car repeatedly and then swore and threatened her. “The man is a psycho,” she said. “He kept ramming me.” Bystanders stepped in when he got out of the car, she said. Ellis told them he was going to call police at a pay phone but never returned. She said the police who investigated the crash told her they knew Ellis from prior run-ins.
And then what happened? Did anything happen? Didn’t his other violent crimes lead to a long prison sentence? Didn’t his 12 crimes against persons matter? Doesn’t ramming a disabled, elderly person with a car count for anything?
The following comments by Ellis’ neighbor are chilling. The woman says that Ellis is a good guy and yet that he is unpredictably violent and dangerous. She doesn’t blame him for any of this, or even for threatening her repeatedly: she blames other people for “not helping him.” This is what happens when people convince themselves that prior criminal acts should be overlooked, and the courts reflect that belief:
[Ellis’] neighbor said that as a child she tried to avoid walking past Ellis’ house — “He would come and just hit you out of nowhere,” she said. But Jordan said Ellis seemed to have changed when she saw him about a year ago at a birthday party. She described him as pleasant and intelligent. She said she was shocked to hear of his arrest, but wishes someone would have helped Ellis early in his life. “When I look back at it, all the indicators were there,” she said. “That behavior, the violent nature in him was already embedded.”
Maybe something will be learned this time. Maybe nothing at all.