Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins filed a motion Wednesday that could bring to a close the three-decade-long case of Sean K. Ellis, whose conviction for the murder of Boston police Detective John J. Mulligan became a cause celebre that raised major questions about police corruption and prosecutorial misconduct.
Rollins’s filing — which the district attorney, in an unusual move, drafted and signed herself — joins with Ellis’s attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio, in seeking to overturn his conviction for possession of Mulligan’s service weapons, the only charge for which he remains convicted.
In her filing, Rollins argues that the police department’s conduct calls for wiping out that remaining conviction, and she blasts the past actions of the Suffolk DA’s office as well.
“The aforementioned corruption of BPD, coupled with the unconstitutional withholding of evidence by this Office and our overall failure of inquiry, are disgraceful chapters in our history,” Rollins wrote. “This level of misconduct and indifference by the prosecution team (both BPD and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office) cannot be condoned, ignored, or tolerated. We must learn from our mistakes.”
Mulligan was murdered outside a Walgreens in Roslindale on Sept. 26, 1993, as he worked a paid detail. He was sleeping in his car at the time of the shooting. His checkered police career was highlighted by numerous allegations of corruption and misconduct.
Ellis served 22 years in prison before a court ordered him released in 2015.
Ellis, who has become a vocal advocate for other wrongfully incarcerated people since leaving prison, addressed Rollins’s decision in an appearance organized by the New England Innocence Project.
“I sit here very emotional, very thankful,” he said. “The past 28 years of my life have been ‘The Commonwealth versus Sean Ellis.’ "
“To be at a point now to have my name cleared is truly emotional and now I can get on with my life in the manner that it was in before it was snatched from me. I’m definitely thankful to DA Rollins, and to my two defense attorneys, Rosemary Scapiccio and Jillise McDonough.
“The problem at the heart of these 28 years stems from the corruption at the heart of the Boston Police Department.”
Wiping out Ellis’s conviction on the gun possession charges would potentially clear the way for him to file a wrongful conviction suit against the city, seeking restitution for his years behind bars. Under state law, he cannot sue as long as he stands convicted of any charge related to the case.
The motion for a new trial for weapons possession rests with Suffolk Superior Court Judge Robert Ullman, who took over the case earlier this year. Ullman would likely hold a hearing to consider the motion to drop the charges. He would also have the option of simply ordering a new trial, which would allow the state to drop the case.
In 2015, the Supreme Judicial Court had ordered a new trial — which would have been Ellis’s fourth — on his conviction for Mulligan’s murder. Instead, in 2017, then-District Attorney John Pappas — who served briefly after Dan Conley resigned to go into private practice — decided not to go forward with a case that had become severely compromised. At that time, both Pappas and then-Boston Police Commissioner William Gross firmly maintained that Ellis was still guilty of Mulligan’s murder.
Technically, Rollins’s filing calls for a new trial on the gun charge. But she has already declared that she would file to drop the case if such a trial were granted, ending the case.
The Ellis case was recently the subject of the hard-hitting Netflix documentary “Trial 4,″ which recounted the investigation and highlighted Scapicchio’s tireless efforts to overturn his conviction.
Ellis was convicted through work by three disgraced officers — Kenneth Acerra, John Brazil, and Walter Robinson — who coerced and intimidated witnesses and concealed evidence in an effort to pin Mulligan’s murder on Ellis and a codefendant, Terry Patterson. Patterson’s murder conviction was also eventually overturned. He subsequently pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was released on time served.
“This is what a progressive DA looks like,” Scapicchio said in a telephone interview. “It’s uncomfortable to come to these conclusions. But you have to if you want to effectuate change. That’s what Rachael Rollins did.”
Scapicchio called for a review of other cases involving Robinson, Acerra, and Brazil. “I’m confident that there are other Sean Ellises sitting in jail cells,” she said. “Every single one of their cases should be looked at. None of them should be overlooked.”
Scapicchio said she believes Ellis should pursue a civil case against the Boston Police Department when he is legally able to. She maintained that not only is Ellis entitled to compensation, such a suit would help discourage the types of abusive and unethical tactics that sent him to prison.
“I believe that although we are on a path now to change with respect to the criminal justice system, with respect to Sean we need to hold the Police Department accountable for what happened here,” she said. “Sean lost the opportunity to live his life for 22 years. He was locked in a cage for 22 years. And now, although he’s working hard and he’s got a full-time job, he’s one step up from an entry-level job and he’s in his 40s.
“I think it’s imperative that we stand up and say, ‘No, this isn’t going happen to another Black or brown kid in Boston.’ "
Scapicchio noted that the department has never acknowledged the slightest wrongdoing or regret in the handling of the Mulligan investigation, despite years of judicial findings and a mountain of evidence that the case is tainted. Indeed, in “Trial 4″ a succession of retired white detectives — including Edward McNelly, a former chief of homicide — continued to insist that the investigation was pristine.
But subsequent investigations showed it was not pristine, and Ellis paid the price. Through the actions of a ferocious advocate and a district attorney who would have been unimaginable in that role in 1993, something approaching justice may be on the horizon.
“It’s a sad day,” Rollins said. “My hope is that this action will stand as a marker that we will no longer tolerate unconstitutional behavior. My decision is about the integrity of the system.”