For over two years, a documentary crew kept a camera on Sean Ellis and pored over the details of the Boston murder that sent him to prison for 22 years.
Those pieces, from video footage to court documents, now make up “Trial 4,” the Netflix docuseries that focuses on the 1993 homicide of Boston police Det. John Mulligan outside a Roslindale Walgreens — a crime Ellis has maintained he didn’t commit.
Why did the Dorchester native allow the spotlight of the eight-hour series to be on him?
“There’s a problem in this country, and when I think about what is going on with Black and brown people within this criminal justice system — we have mass incarceration, police brutality, things of that nature — there needed to be something that shed light on the injustices that are faced by us as a people,” Ellis said Monday on GBH’s “Greater Boston.” “And so that was really at the heart of that decision, because it isn’t about Sean Ellis, it’s about those who are continuously being victimized by the criminal justice system.”
In 1995, a then-21-year-old Ellis was convicted of first-degree murder and armed robbery following two mistrials. Twenty years later, a court ruling reversed those convictions and Ellis was out on bail waiting for a fourth trial when cameras started rolling.
In 2018, prosecutors dropped those two charges against Ellis after the passage of time and the uncovered corruption within the Boston Police Department in the 1990s compromised their ability to secure another conviction. Ellis, though, was still guilty, they said.
The cocktail of details surrounding the case attracted the documentary team to tell Ellis’s story, director Remy Burkel told GBH.
“The murder itself is horrendous. It was an execution-style murder, five bullets in the face,” Burkel said. “And the fact that this young man was accused, just after he (went to) the police spontaneously and said, ‘I was just in there buying diapers.’ He could have been a witness and suddenly he becomes, you know, the perfect, usual suspect. So all those elements said, ‘Wow, this is just a very strong story.'”
Rosemary Scapicchio, Ellis’s defense attorney, was a bit more hesitant for her client to go in front of the cameras, she told “Greater Boston” host Jim Braude.
“But, you know, Sean and I had a long conversation, and he thought that it was important to tell this story, and and I thought it was important to, you know, make sure that the next jury that was going to hear this case was going to hear it in a way that they would have a full picture in terms of what was happening,” Scapicchio said.
As for what’s next, Scapicchio said she’s working to reverse one remaining conviction for Ellis — a related gun charge — “because he didn’t do it and he shouldn’t be a convicted felon because of this case.”
If Ellis is exonerated, that would be “a dream come true,” she said. Scapicchio is unsure though whether Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins would make that move.
“I think she could, based on all of the evidence that’s been developed in this case, and to give Shawn the opportunity to not be a convicted felon, (and) go and live the rest of his life as the person that he is, and not drag that ball and chain around with him on this gun conviction that we all know you either believe he did it or you didn’t,” she said. “And there is no in-between. There’s no gray area here at all.”
Rollins has concerns regarding the outstanding gun conviction.
“No longer are we going to be legally right and morally wrong,” Rollins told The Boston Globe‘s Adrian Walker recently. “And I have significant questions about whether we are legally right, with respect to the gun.”
Scapicchio said she does not know who murdered Mulligan.
“But I know no one’s looking for them,” she said. “So that’s a problem.”
Despite all that’s happened in his life, Ellis said he strives to not be bitter about the past.
“When you’re upset, can you envision yourself walking around feeling that way for the rest of your life?” Ellis asked Braude. “Like that’s a heavy reality to walk around with, and I’m making a conscious decision to try to work on and heal myself from the inside out.”
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