Sean Ellis was born in Boston in July 1974 to Mary "Jackie" Ellis and her husband, John Ellis. The couple later divorced, and Jackie moved from Boston's Dorchester section to a housing project across town in Roslindale. Wanting a better education for her children than was available in her neighborhood, she enrolled Sean and two other of her children in METCO, the voluntary school integration program run by the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity that buses selected Boston students to high-performing suburban schools. The benefits flow both ways, for the primarily white outlying schools benefit from the injection of diversity. Sean, his sister, Jeanelle, and their half-brother, Joseph Moody, were all enrolled in the Needham, Massachusetts, schools.
Sean Ellis in third grade: top row, fifth from left. Typically, just one or two African-American students were placed in each suburban classroom through METCO.
Sean's brother, Joseph Moody, died in Needham at age 12.
In 1984, Sean's brother, Joseph, a popular and witty student at Needham's Pollard Middle School, tragically drowned at a classmate's pool party one hot June day. He hadn't told anybody he couldn't swim.
After Joseph's death, Sean would ride his bike over to his brother's grave and sit on the grass all afternoon, gazing into the distance. He eventually asked to leave the Needham schools. By that time his mother had moved back to Dorchester, and Sean transferred to Dorchester High, where he played football and was interested in computers. He graduated in 1992.
During the early '90s, Sean's mother's corner of Dorchester was a hotbed of street violence. As a teenager, Sean cast his lot with a group of friends who hung on Hansborough Street. Termed a posse by police, the boys were nonetheless devoted friends who provided each other security and support, often in lieu of families. When streets became battlefields, they watched each others' backs and, in being together, felt safe. A band of brothers, so to speak...
Was Sean looking for brothers? Looking back, he believes he was.
After graduating from high school, Sean looked unsuccessfully for jobs. "I sent out job applications, but got no replies," he recalls. By his own admission, he had a few "run ins with the law" as a teen, most stemming from domestic disturbances. There was discord at home, for Sean greatly disliked his mother's live-in boyfriend. Disputes arose, and and Mary "Jackie" Ellis called the cops a couple of times "to teach Sean a lesson."
In one such incident, Sean took his two-year old sister for a walk around the block to escape the noisy argument and soothe her crying. Suddenly, he felt a policeman's tap on his shoulder and he was arrested for "kidnapping." (The charge was later dropped.)
Despite negative press commentary about Sean following his arrest (former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, citing no specifics, called him "a one-man crime wave"), Sean was never charged with street violence -- and never convicted of a crime. "It was all small stuff in Dorchester District Court that was going to be dismissed," Boston Globe reporter John Ellement told this author in a phone interview following Sean's conviction.
Sean's cousin, Tracy Brown (murdered three days after Mulligan: see "Murder & investigation"), urged him to further his education, and in 1993 he was considering a mechanic's program...and then came John Mulligan's murder and his arrest. He spent his last free day on October 5, 1993.
Looking back on the dangerous city streets he negotiated daily as a teen, Sean Ellis has said more than once, "If I'd not been in prison, I definitely could have been killed."
In his twenty-two years post conviction, Ellis was a model prisoner, rising in status through the Massachusetts correctional system and earning certification as a paralegal via a correspondence course. At medium-security MCI Norfolk, he was one of a select group of inmates trained to counsel at-risk youth.
In 2013 Sean wrote, "Rather than succumb to the negative pressures of this penal setting, I continuously work to prove my innocence and to better myself."