There may always be a lingering dispute about Sean Ellis’s role — if any — in the murder of Boston police Detective John J. Mulligan 23 years ago. But no doubt remains that Ellis was convicted in an unfair trial, an injustice that cost him more than two decades of freedom.
On Friday, the Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed a lower court finding that corrupt Boston police detectives had suppressed evidence in all three of Ellis’s trials. The SJC ordered a new trial for Ellis, who after 22 years in prison was freed last year after the lower court’s ruling.
But that new trial should never take place. Ellis should be free, once and for all. He’s been tried enough.
In 1993, the murder of Mulligan rocked the city. The detective was shot five times in the face as he slept in a car outside a Walgreens in Roslindale. He was working a paid detail. Following the obligatory manhunt that followed, Ellis and a codefendant, Terry Patterson, were convicted of murder. (Patterson would eventually plead to manslaughter, after a successful appeal of his murder conviction.)
The case against Ellis was problematic from the start. His first two murder trials ended in mistrials. He was convicted in the third. He was also convicted of possession of both the murder weapon and the two guns that were taken off Mulligan at the time of the killing. They were found in a lot near his girlfriend’s house.
But the case remained messy. Mulligan was a dirty cop. So were several of his former colleagues who investigated his murder. Two — Walter F. Robinson Jr. and Kenneth Acerra — were convicted in a federal corruption trial in 1999. A third, John Brazil, was granted immunity in that case.
In ordering a new trial, the SJC based its decision on newly discovered evidence that Mulligan was an officer who robbed drug dealers and pimps, that the FBI had word of a contract out for his murder, and that his association with the aforementioned officers might have tainted their handling of the case and its evidence. The court found that other leads were not investigated and that information was not shared with the defense, as required.
“These detectives would likely fear that a prolonged and comprehensive investigation of the victim’s murder would uncover leads that might reveal their own corruption,” Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote in the ruling Friday.
The justices did not rule that Ellis is innocent. But the questions about his trial certainly raise the very real prospect of reasonable doubt.
“We’re thrilled that the court has seen what we’ve known all along, that Sean didn’t get a fair trial,” Ellis’s lawyer, Rosemary Scapicchio, told me Sunday.
The ruling places Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley in an unenviable position. Under the best of circumstances, winning a murder conviction more than two decades after the fact is difficult. This case relies heavily on eyewitness testimony that may prove a lot less credible after so much time has passed. Meanwhile, two courts have shredded the credibility of much of the evidence and many of the key witnesses.
Through a spokesman, Conley immediately declared that Ellis will be retried. Yeah, maybe. But there are reasons to wonder. For one, an aggressive lawyer like Scapicchio would have a field day questioning every piece of evidence collected by demonstrably corrupt detectives who couldn’t make this case disappear fast enough.
“What’s going to happen if they really retry this case, all of the corruption from the ’80s and ’90s will be central to that trial,” Scapicchio said. “If they want to try that, I’m your girl.”
Ellis is now living quietly on the North Shore with his pastor. If justice is served in this case, he’s seen his last courtroom.
It’s not enough to say that prosecutors can’t prove the case against him. Ellis never should have been convicted at all. As two courts have now resoundingly concluded, the proven criminals in this case carried badges.