In 1993, Det. John Mulligan of the Boston Police Department was shot and killed, execution-style, in the parking lot of a Walgreens. He was sleeping in an SUV in the parking lot when the murder occurred, and his weapon was stolen. Two years later, Sean Ellis, a Black teenager who was 19 at the time of Mulligan’s murder, was convicted for Mulligan’s murder. Ellis readily admitted he was at Walgreens that night with his co-defendant, Terry Patterson, then 18, but that he had entered the store to purchase a package of diapers, and left. Eventually, authorities claimed the teens saw the sleeping officer and decided to take his weapon as a “trophy.” Later, it was proven that the detectives on the case were corrupt. And after 22 years behind bars, three trials, two hung juries, and a release on bail, Ellis faced a fourth trial that would determine whether he was sent back to prison.
Throughout it all, Ellis has fought for his innocence and against systemic racism. Now Ellis’ story is being told in Netflix's powerful eight-episode docuseries, directed by Rémy Burkel. “It’s first and foremost a very emotional and strong story with a lot of twists,” Burkel told Refinery29 on a recent video call. But it’s also about a bigger story.
“We’re talking about the 13th Amendment, we’re talking about wrongful convictions,” Burkel said regarding the series’ timeliness. “[Ellis] was saying, ‘Read The New Jim Crow, read Just Mercy.’ It’s all part of that process of saying, ‘We are looked at, we are arrested, we are beaten down constantly.’”
Ellis’ story evolved as production was occurring; filming started in the autumn of 2017 and finished March 2020. In 2018, Rachael Rollins was elected Suffolk County District Attorney — and is the first woman of color (and first woman, period) to fill the role. Her win inspired hope in Ellis and his legal team that the case would take a positive turn. Two weeks before she took office, however, the then-acting DA, John Pappas, held a press conference on a major case.
The charges against Ellis were being dropped, Pappas announced, because the passage of time had “compromised [their] ability” to find him guilty again. Additionally, the three lead detectives in Mulligan’s case were all corrupt: Kenneth Acerra and Walter Robinson had pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges in 1998 while John K. Brazile received immunity for his testimony. The decision to dismiss Ellis’ case was based on the involvement of the three corrupt officials, not a reflection on Ellis being wrongfully convicted. There are currently no charges against anyone for Mulligan’s murder.
While the dismissal means there won’t be another trial, it still isn’t true justice for Ellis since he wasn’t exonerated or acquitted. “If there was any question about my exoneration we would be heading to a fourth trial,” Ellis told reporters in December 2018 after his GPS ankle device was removed. Trial 4 is effectively Ellis’ fourth trial.
From his days behind bars to his 2015 release and the 2018 dismissal, Ellis hasn’t given up his fight for those who were wrongly convicted, himself included. According to Burkel, Ellis “learned a lot in prison” and got his paralegal certificate. “He learned a lot about the law because for a while he didn’t have an attorney,” Burkel explained. While in prison he also helped the wardens with those who were new to the system and learning the ropes of prison life.
Upon his release in 2015, according to Justice for Sean Ellis, he was provided housing from an official at his mother’s church. He became a first-time driver at 41 after friends funded his driver’s education course, and was hired by Community Servings, a nonprofit that prepares and delivers meals to ill and elderly home-bound residents. He was promoted to development associate in 2020, and assists in fundraising and community outreach.
While Ellis doesn’t appear to be publicly active on social media, he has continued to fight for justice. In fall 2019, Ellis also became a trustee of the New England Innocence Project, an organization that fights to correct and prevent wrongful convictions and ensure justice within the legal system. Ellis is also active in BLM, Burkel said, and marched during the George Floyd protests.
“Sean is one story,” Burkel said. “There’s thousands of other stories out there.”