(CBS/AP) MILWAUKEE - A Milwaukee man was convicted Friday in the deaths of seven women killed over 21 years, after he unexpectedly entered no contest pleas during a court hearing.
The plea means Walter Ellis, 50, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison, just as if he had pleaded guilty - but he did not admit his guilt.
Prosecutors say Ellis killed the seven women between 1986 and 2007.
All the victims were strangled, some with a rope or clothing. One was also stabbed. Investigators suspected all the victims were prostitutes, but some of the victims' family members dispute that judgment.
Judge Dennis Cimpl convicted Ellis on five counts of first-degree intentional homicide and two counts of first-degree murder. He said he was satisfied Ellis understood that he was giving up his right to a trial, that he would be convicted and faced life in prison. The judge scheduled sentencing for Feb. 24.
Friday's development leads to the end of a drawn-out case in which Ellis initially pleaded not guilty, then indicated he would change his plea and then changed his mind after the victims' family members had gathered in court.
He unexpectedly entered the no contest plea during a motion hearing in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, where he appeared shackled and in a wheelchair.
Terry Williams, the brother of victim Joyce Mims who was killed in June 1997, said the phrasing of the no contest plea doesn't matter.
"His punishment is still going to be the same. As long as he's behind bars, he will not be able to harm anyone else," Williams said. "He got away for a while, but sooner or later you will be brought to justice."
Ellis wasn't arrested until Sept. 5, 2009, after the Milwaukee Police Department's cold case unit sifted through thousands of cases and tested the DNA of more than 100 people. Police began to focus on Ellis after his name surfaced in connection with a number of unsolved homicides, according to Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn.