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Sean Ellis’s quest for justice remains maddeningly unfinished

Sean Ellis was released in 2015 after serving 22 years in prison for the killing of a police officer. His case included evidence of police misconduct, though he has not yet been exonerated, and is the subject of the Netflix series "Trial 4."
Sean Ellis was released in 2015 after serving 22 years in prison for the killing of a police officer. His case included evidence of police misconduct, though he has not yet been exonerated, and is the subject of the Netflix series "Trial 4."Craig F. Walker

Sean Ellis was freed after serving 22 years in prison for murder, but never exonerated. Released, yet somehow still a captive.

Ellis was released from prison in 2015 after judges found significant evidence of police misconduct, though a related conviction on a gun charge was left untouched. That Ellis remains a convicted felon is a miscarriage of justice, and it has to change.

“No longer are we going to be legally right and morally wrong,” Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said in an interview. “And I have significant questions about whether we are legally right, with respect to the gun.”

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The broad outlines of the Ellis case are familiar to those who lived through it, but bear retelling.

Ellis was 19 years old when he was charged and convicted in the 1993 killing of Boston Police detective John Mulligan, who was shot to death while working a paid detail at a Walgreen’s in Roslindale. His first two trials ended in hung juries; he was convicted on the prosecution’s third try. Once the Boston Police Department settled on him as the killer, there was no looking back. In the wake of the murder, law enforcement and the public demanded an arrest, and his was it.

Ellis’s saga is told in meticulous and deeply troubling detail in “Trial 4”, an eight-part documentary series currently streaming on Netflix. The film basically impeaches most of the investigators and key witnesses, and casts deep doubt on every aspect of the prosecution. (I appear as a commentator in several episodes.)

Sean Ellis with his lawyer, Rosemary Scapicchio, in a scene from Netflix's "Trial 4" series.
Sean Ellis with his lawyer, Rosemary Scapicchio, in a scene from Netflix's "Trial 4" series.Netflix

The film highlights the deeply troubling investigation, or non-investigation, of the murder. Not only was the probe driven by three corrupt detectives — Kenneth Acerra, Walter Robinson, and John Brazil — both Acerra and Robinson had shaken down drug dealers with the help of their colleague Mulligan. Their corruption is a matter of record; Robinson and Acerra were both convicted on federal charges, after Brazil flipped and became a witness against them.

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Throughout the documentary, Ellis’s ace attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio, drives holes the size of a truck through the prosecution’s case. Every witness and every piece of evidence those officers touched is tainted, and that would include almost all the significant evidence in the case.

Nor is that the only issue, as Scapicchio points out. Many leads and tips went unpursued. Other suspects were ignored. The truth is, Mulligan had his share of enemies. But Scapicchio argues, persuasively, the investigation ended when Ellis became the prime suspect.

“They put the blinders on, because they decided he had done it,” she said. “They didn’t investigate (anything.) That worked for them for years and years.”

Rollins effectively took away the decision about whether to try Ellis for a fourth time. After her election, but before she took office, District Attorney John Pappas (who had taken over after Dan Conley abruptly resigned to join a big law firm) announced that, mostly due to fading memories on the part of key witnesses, there would be no fourth trial.

The announcement was a monument to bitterness, as police and prosecutors whose work has been effectively overturned by the SJC insisted that they were right anyway, and that Ellis was still guilty. To see even a snippet of it is enraging, given all the facts it ignores.

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As far as I’m concerned, it was the last opportunity of the outgoing regime in the Suffolk DA’s office to control the narrative — to broom the case while conceding nothing.

A Rollins announcement not to move forward with a fourth trial would have been a lot different, and they knew it.

“That press conference, they were sore losers, and they were taking it personally,” Rollins said. “We have complicated victims of homicide all time, people who were engaging in high-risk behavior. John Mulligan was one of those people. That doesn’t (change) what happened. But we’re not going to look the other way.”

What’s left of the Ellis case now is his conviction for possession of Mulligan’s service weapon, which was recovered during the investigation. Scapicchio is preparing a motion for a new trial on that charge, and don’t be surprised if Rollins doesn’t oppose it.

If that conviction were vacated, the door would be open for Ellis to sue the city for wrongful conviction. Scapicchio said he has made no decision about whether to sue.

Scapicchio said she worries that suing the BPD would make him a target of police harassment. She noted that another client of hers, Shawn Drumgold, was arrested three times during a similar suit, after he was freed from prison time for a murder he didn’t commit. (Drumgold eventually settled with the city for $5 million.)

The Ellis case raises huge questions about the history of corruption within the BPD. But it raises questions about the present, too.

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Rollins doesn’t care that raising questions about the Ellis case won’t endear her to the Boston Police Department — or, for that matter, to his prosecutors, some of whom remain in key posts in her office.

“This is real, and it’s still happening,” Rollins said. “The fact that we are being willfully blind, or actively looking away, is wrong. And it’s not happening on my watch.”

Ellis now works for Community Servings, a social service agency, and does work with the New England Innocence Project, a group devoted to freeing the wrongfully incarcerated.

Somehow, the figure at the center of it all projects serenity.

“What would it serve me to walk around angry and bitter,” he said on GBH’s “Greater Boston” Monday night. “I’m making a conscious decision to work on myself and heal myself.”


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.