Netflix's latest true-crime offering, Trial 4, is sadly a story that we've heard time and time again: the highly questionable conviction of a young Black man, in a case with clear undercurrents of racism and police misconduct.
This particular story is that of Sean K Ellis who, at the age of 19, was accused and later convicted of the murder of a white police detective named John Mulligan.
We emphasise later, because Ellis was put through three criminal trials (the first two resulted in hung juries and mistrials) before a guilty verdict was reached. He has always maintained his innocence.
In the documentary, Ellis' defence team highlighted how unusual the multi-trial pursuit of a conviction was. This further fuelled the idea presented in the series; that authorities were pushing harder with the case because it had been an officer that had been murdered. What's more, the dynamics of a powerful white man versus a young Black citizen cannot be overlooked.
There was no significant physical evidence to tie Ellis to the crime, and the witness testimony against him was highly contestable.
On the night of the murder in 1993, Mulligan had been asleep in his car outside of a Walgreens store where he was working security detail. He was shot in the face multiple times, in what has been described as an execution-style killing. Two firearms, which he had been carrying, were taken from the scene.
Ellis had been with a friend, Terry Patterson, that night. He readily admitted to being in the area where the crime took place, telling how they had driven to Walgreens so that he could buy some Pampers.
Detective Kenneth "Kenny" Acerra and Detective Walter "Mitty" Robinson were both involved in the investigation. A key witness, Rosa Sanchez, claimed that she saw Ellis next to Mulligan's car on the night of the shooting. She also picked him out of a photo array, and a suspect lineup.
A question mark was raised around the fact that there was a family relationship between Sanchez and Detective Acerra. He had lived with Sanchez's aunt, with Acerra and Sanchez's aunt also sharing a child together.
According to the series, Sanchez initially pointed out two other men during the photo array but, after leaving the room with Acerra, she returned and identified Ellis. Both detectives denied, when questioned under oath, influencing Sanchez's photo selection. Sanchez has also denied that she was influenced in her identification or her testimony.
Ellis' uncle David Murray was said to have been under pressure to testify, having been on parole after serving a 14-year sentence for house evasion. He told the court that Ellis had told him over and over that he had not murdered Mulligan.
It's worth pointing out that David Murray was not part of Ellis' third trial, which saw the guilty verdict. It was put forward in the docu-series that the prosecution had made adjustments to the case it presented to the third jury, based on learnings from previous trials. This, of course, begs the question of fairness.
During his own trial, Terry Patterson was found guilty and sentenced to life without possibility of parole. He too maintained his innocence. Following an appeal and the undermining of the fingerprint evidence used to convict him, he agreed to take a plea deal in order to be released from prison. His counts were reduced to manslaughter, armed robbery, and gun charges, and in 2006 he was credited with time served and freed (via thecinemaholic.com).
Back to Ellis' trials, and his then-girlfriend Letia "Tia" Walker – who herself was only 18 or 19 at that time – ended up testifying for the prosecution. In Trial 4, she painted a picture of police harassment and threats that her young child could be taken away if she did not cooperate.
Letia revealed that she had been asked to give her finger prints. Saying she had nothing to hide, she obliged. After that, her prints were claimed to have been found on the guns. As a result of this development, Letia agreed to testify as a witness for the prosecution under a grant of immunity.
She testified that Sean had hidden the two guns in her house. In the episodes, Ellis said that there is no truth to this version of events, but understood that his former girlfriend may have needed to do what was necessary to protect herself and her family.
According to the Netflix series, prosecutor Phyllis Broker did not respond to these claims.
After Shaun Ellis' conviction, rumblings of corruption in the Boston police department started to gain attention. Following an investigation by The Boston Globe's award-winning Spotlight team, it was claimed that detectives Acerra and Robinson had been fabricating informants, falsifying warrants, and seizing thousands of dollars from searches and keeping it for themselves. There were also allegations that they had been putting drugs back on the streets, in order to earn more money.
In 1997, Acerra and Robinson pleaded guilty to conspiracy, theft, intimidation of witnesses and falsifying informants.
In light of this development, Ellis filed a motion for a new trial in 1998, but that was denied. He put forward a second retrial motion in 2013 and finally, in 2015, Ellis had his conviction overturned by a judge who ruled that "justice was not done" during his original trials.
Judge Carol Ball granted the motion for a new trial. In the 67-page decision, it was ruled that newly discovered evidence showed that police had "failed to vigorously pursue other leads" and that the prosecution had made a "rush to judgment".
As for Mulligan, some started to question whether or not he might have been involved in the same corrupt activities as Acerra and Robinson. He had been a zealous officer, known by both the community and his colleagues as someone that would push for arrests whenever the opportunity arose – a reputation, it was speculated, that could have been a motive for an unknown murder suspect.
The eight-part Netflix series was exhaustive and detailed in its exploration of all of this backstory, and was filmed while Sean Ellis awaited a fourth trial (hence the title) and once again the prospect of being imprisoned.
In December 2018, the acting District Attorney John Pappas announced that they would not be pursuing another trial after all. It seems that he and his team still felt that Ellis and Terry Patterson were the likely suspects, but Pappas said that "the passage of more than two and a half decades has seriously compromised our ability to prove it again".
"For this reason, my office will file paperwork today ending the prosecution of Mr. Ellis for first-degree murder and armed robbery," he said.
According to Boston.com, it's understood that prosecutors did not believe that Mulligan was involved with the corruption. But Pappas said that this was "now inextricably intertwined with the investigation and critical witnesses in the case".
This dismissal means that Ellis won't have to face another trial, but it is not proper justice for him. Let's also not forget that he spent almost 22 years in prison, based on a trial that's been deemed unfair and for a crime that he says he did not commit.
"If there was any question about my exoneration we would be heading to a fourth trial," he said in December 2018 following the news.
Ellis is said to have got his paralegal certificate while he was in prison, and is committed to fighting for the justice of others. He became a trustee of the New England Innocence Project in 2019, which works to correct and prevent wrongful convictions.
Trial 4 is available now on Netflix.
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