Calling it a “sad chapter in the history of our criminal justice system,” a Suffolk Superior Court judge on Tuesday effectively ended the prosecution of Sean K. Ellis in the killing of a Boston police detective, John J. Mulligan, who was shot in the face with a .25-caliber pistol in Roslindale in 1993.
Ellis spent 22 years in state prison before his murder conviction was overturned because of police and prosecutorial misconduct. Speaking at a hearing that lasted just five minutes, Judge Robert Ullmann said Ellis’s conviction for illegal firearm possession was likewise flawed and could not stand.
“I decide today that justice was not done at Mr. Ellis’s January 1995 trial, and on that basis the motion for a new trial is allowed,” Ullmann said. “This whole case is a very sad chapter in the history of our criminal justice system. Thankfully, this chapter seems to be nearing its conclusion.”
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said her office was formally dropping the remaining gun count by filing what’s known as a nolle prosequi.
“Today marks the end of a long and troubling chapter in Boston’s history,” Rollins said in a statement.
Ellis’s appellate attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio, said the removal of the felony conviction creates the opportunity for Ellis to apply for compensation as a wrongfully convicted person. However, she said, Ellis has not made any decision on whether to pursue compensation or sue the city for wrongful conviction.
“He hasn’t made that decision yet,’' Scapicchio said. “But it does clear the path for him.”
Ellis was tried three times in 1995 for Mulligan’s murder. The first two trials ended with hung juries and mistrials; he was convicted of murder in the third. During the first trial, Ellis was also convicted of possessing both the murder weapon and Mulligan’s stolen service pistol, which Boston police said they recovered from a field near Ellis’s Dorchester home and linked to Ellis through a former girlfriend.
The two convictions — although both related to the single act of Mulligan’s death — traveled on separate legal tracks in the succeeding years. Scapicchio first focused attention on the murder conviction, a strategy that succeeded in 2016, when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled Ellis had not gotten a fair trial and former Suffolk District Attorney John Pappas later agreed that police corruption permanently undermined the evidence.
On Tuesday, the focus shifted to the gun conviction. Scapicchio — with strong support from Rollins — said in court papers that Mulligan and key Boston police detectives who investigated his death jointly engaged in corruption.And since the murder conviction was dismissed on the grounds that corruption violated Ellis’s right to a fair trial, the gun conviction should also be dismissed.
“For me, the bottom line here is that for Mr. Ellis’s January 1995 trial, he had none of the exculpatory evidence obtained long after” his murder conviction, the judge said.
“I see no need to go over the extensive discussion of the lack of exculpatory evidence disclosures in those other cases. I feel it’s enough just to say that all of that exculpatory evidence that may well have changed the outcome of Mr. Ellis’s first trial was not made available to him.”
In a telephone interview, Scapicchio said that once Ullmann issues a written order and Rollins files the nolle prosequi statement, the “ball and chain” that have been holding back Ellis since 1995 will be gone forever.
“Sean will no longer be a convicted felon,’' Scapicchio said. “Having this kind of conviction hanging over his head was always sort of that ball and chain, the leftover sort of dagger from his experience, left over from his experience of spending 22 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit . . . He’s ecstatic.”
Scapicchio, whose years of legal work on Ellis’s behalf were supported by the New England Innocence Project, said the resolution of the Ellis case should be celebrated — but other cases from that era must also be scrutinized.
“I am convinced that Sean Ellis is not the beginning and end . . . I am convinced there are others sitting locked in prison cells for crimes they didn’t commit,” she said.
The hearing was held over Zoom, and attendees included Mulligan’s brother Richard, who has steadfastly believed that Ellis is responsible for his brother’s murder. Mulligan’s relatives filed a letter with their views on the disposition with Ullmann, who acknowledged he had read it but did not disclose its contents.
“We are not nothing but disappointed,’' Richard Mulligan said in an interview, adding that he did not want to talk about the letter to Ullmann.
In court papers, Rollins acknowledged enough evidence existed to convict Ellis of the gun charges. But because her predecessor, Ralph C. Martin II, and Boston police so mishandled the investigation, she said, she could not let any of Ellis’s convictions stand.
“Corruption at the root tainted every branch in the investigation into the murder of Det. Mulligan, including the gun possession charge,” Rollins wrote. Boston police “corruption does not stand alone. My office shares significant responsibility for the extensive discovery violations found by this court and the SJC.”
In her statement, Rollins said corruption was exposed during the long legal saga and that Mulligan’s family has suffered.
“They asked for none of this,” Rollins said. “They knew and loved John, not as a BPD Detective, but as a brother, uncle, father, and son. Today brings no solace for them. Instead, it exposes old wounds that will now require even more time to heal.”
Ellis’s family, she said, also suffered.
“Although their loved one is alive, he lost 22 years of his life,” Rollins said.
Ellis and his friend Terry L. Patterson drove to a neighboring street, parked and then, prosecutors alleged, walked into the parking lot where Mulligan was working a detail outside a Walgreen’s drugstore and killed on Sept. 26, 1993. Both men were charged with murder, but tried separately.
Patterson was convicted in 1995 of first-degree murder after a police forensics technician testified his latent fingerprints were on Mulligan’s car door. However, a new trial was ordered in 2006 when that fingerprint technique was found scientifically unreliable. Patterson pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and was released after serving about 11 years.
Rollins said Tuesday that the authorities must ensure there’s no repeat of the Ellis case.
“We need to continue to work together as law enforcement partners to make sure the criminal and unconstitutional behavior that infected every part of the investigation into Detective Mulligan’s death can never happen again,” Rollins said.
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.