As conversations around the longstanding racial biases and corruption inherent in the American criminal justice system finally begin to receive the attention they deserve, Netflix has added to its true crime collection a powerful new docuseries that illustrates the unfairness that permeates the system. Trial 4 explores the story of Sean Ellis, who spent more than two decades in prison for a crime he did not commit, and who was finally exonerated after the Boston police officers involved in the investigation were indicted on separate federal corruption charges.
The eight-episode docuseries unpacks the case and follows Ellis in the lead-up to his fourth trial for the case: the first two, both in 1995, ended in hung juries, and the third, which took place later that same year, sent him to prison. The fourth trial ultimately didn't end up happening, after the Suffolk County District Attorney decided in 2018 to dismiss the case.
Here's what you need to know about Ellis' case and Trial 4.
Why was Sean Ellis sent to prison?
Ellis was arrested in 1993, when he was 19 years old, for the murder of John Mulligan, a Boston police detective who was shot several times in the head while sleeping in his car outside of a Walgreens in Sept. 1993. Ellis had indeed stopped at the Walgreens with a friend around the time Mulligan was killed, but maintained that he had played no role in the murder. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, evidence against Ellis included the discovery of Mulligan's gun and the gun that killed him in bushes near Ellis' home, as well as testimony from a witness who said she saw Ellis crouching near Mulligan's vehicle; the witness, Rosa Sanchez, was later found to have close personal connections to one of the officers who questioned her, and to have initially incorrectly identified Ellis from a photo lineup.
In Ellis' first trial, in Jan. 1995, the jury found him guilty of illegal possession of a firearm, but could not come to a unanimous decision on the counts of first-degree murder and armed robbery, so a mistrial was declared.
The second trial took place in March 1995, resulting in the same outcome as the first.
In his third trial, in Sept. 1995, Ellis was found guilty of first-degree murder and armed robbery, and sentenced to life in prison. That trial included testimony from Ellis' then-girlfriend, who claimed she'd gone with Ellis to retrieve the two guns from his apartment before hiding them.
For his part, Ellis and his defense team maintained that Terry Patterson, the friend who was with Ellis at the Walgreens on the night of Mulligan's murder, acted alone in killing the detective. Patterson was convicted of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and illegal possession of a firearm and sentenced to life in prison in Feb. 1995; however, he was granted a new trial after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court determined he had been deprived of crucial evidence. After pleading guilty to manslaughter in 2006, Patterson was released from prison in 2007.
How was Sean Ellis exonerated?
In the years after Ellis' trials, his lawyer, Rosemary Scappichio, filed a motion for a retrial, pointing to the fact that several of the officers leading Mulligan's murder investigation had been indicted on federal corruption charges. The motion was denied, but Scappichio continued to dig into the case and filed another motion in 2013, alleging that Ellis' defense team had been denied evidence demonstrating Mulligan's own corrupt activities, including allegations that another police officer was responsible for Mulligan's murder as either revenge or a cover-up for those activities.
A retrial was granted in 2015, at which time Ellis was released from prison on bail, after more than 20 years incarcerated. Though the prosecution appealed this decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the decision to retry the case.
The mistrial was reportedly scheduled for 2019, but in Dec. 2018, when Ellis was 44 years old, Suffolk County District Attorney John Pappas announced that his office was dismissing the murder charges, citing the unreliable witnesses and the police corruption associated with the original case. "As we all know, Detectives Kenneth Acerra, Walter Robinson, and John Brazil disgraced themselves and tarnished their badges in a wide variety of criminal conduct unrelated to this case—the extent of which was unknown to prosecutors or defense counsel in 1995," Pappas said at the time, per WBUR. "Perhaps more than any other factor, their shameful conduct presents a major challenge to our ability to put a successful case to a new jury."
Scapicchio, Ellis' attorney, said of her client's long-overdue exoneration: "If they thought for one second that Sean was responsible, they would've gone forward with the trial. They know they can't prove it because he didn't do it. They steered it in the direction of Sean Ellis 25 years ago, and now they can't fix it. They can't find anyone out there who's willing to say Sean did it."
Where is Sean Ellis now?
Since his release from prison, Ellis has dedicated much of his time to advocating for criminal justice reforms. He now addresses schools and other groups about criminal justice, and is a trustee of the New England Innocence Project.
According to the "Justice for Sean Ellis" website, run by Ellis' longtime friend and former criminal justice researcher Elaine Alice Murphy, Ellis works as a development associate focusing on fundraising and community outreach at Community Servings, a nonprofit that provides meals to homebound Bostonians. Additionally, Ellis was recently selected for a 2020-2021 fellowship with the Tufts University Institute for Nonprofit Practice.
Finally, per Murphy's site, "[Ellis'] personal life has never been happier or more stable. In 2021 he plans to wed a colleague at Community Servings."