Justice for Sean Ellis

Sean K. Ellis was convicted in 1995 (after two mistrials) for the 1993 murder of Boston Det. John Mulligan. He was incarcerated for nearly 22 years, but his conviction was overturned in 2015 by a Suffolk Superior Court judge who ruled "justice was not done." This website tells his story.


September 9, 2018

My name is Elaine Murphy. I'm a former teacher, retired freelance writer/editor, senior justice fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, married mother of three grown children and grandmother of three, and friend of Sean Ellis's.

I first met Sean when he was eight years old, during the 1980s. He and my son, Mark, were classmates at the Mitchell Elementary School in suburban Needham, Massachusetts, where Sean was bused each day from Boston through METCO, a voluntary school integration program. Our family was Sean's unofficial "host family."

Sean was slender and shy and uncommonly sweet, with a pronounced stutter that elicited listeners' sympathies. We grew genuinely fond of him. He sometimes slept at our house to attend school functions; he and Mark attended each other's birthday parties and enjoyed outings to Fenway Park.

In 1986 our family moved to Canada, and we lost track of Sean. Then, one fateful day in September 1995, a visitor to our Montreal home walked in bearing the Boston Globe, and on the front page we saw the banner headline announcing his conviction. To say we were shocked and saddened would be an understatement (see my 9/21/95 Boston Globe op-ed article, reprinted below).

Reading the many questions and issues in the Mulligan case that were recapped in the conviction coverage -- allegations of police misconduct in handling evidence and witnesses, the murders of four young people connected to the case, two prior hung juries -- and recalling Sean's good nature, I was motivated to get involved.  But I was wary.  Such dark matters lay far outside the comfort zone of my quiet world. Yet one essential truth moved me to action: Having learned of Sean's conviction and his protestations of innocence, I could never go back to not knowing.

I could not turn away.

I began researching past newspaper accounts of the case, from the September 1993 murder all the way through Sean's 1995 conviction, and soon afterwards the explosive findings of police corruption in Boston involving three key investigators of Det. John Mulligan's murder. This led to visiting Sean in prison. My role increasingly deepened until I was working alongside his family and with his attorneys in his quest for a new trial. Along the way I re-bonded with Sean through our prison conversations, and we developed a warm relationship that continues today.

Over my 17 years of researching the case I re-analyzed testimony and evidence and scored interviews with several key players, all of which generated fresh insights that I describe in my forthcoming memoir, Freeing Sean: My Journey into a Cop Killing, Failed Justice, and America's Racial Divide

This website gives highlights of what I've come to know about Sean and his case in my years of research, including the reasonable doubt I discern that would have moved me to vote "not guilty" had I been a juror. Beyond the case, which is described in sections 1-9, other sections of this website seek to portray Sean as he actually was as a youth and teenager and is today -- to supplant the "beast" image of him splashed across the 1993 Boston press with the reality of a very human boy who came of age amidst significant chaos and who has grown into a decent, warm, and incredibly forbearing man. 

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I'll likely never know exactly what went down outside the Roslindale Walgreens just before dawn on September 26, 1993. Sean has been prohibited from discussing that time with anyone but his attorneys, a sound legal practice. But through my research into the case I came to believe he was convicted with insufficient, conflicting, and possibly false evidence.

Among the many compelling points raised by Sean's brilliant appellate attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio, in her 2013 retrial motion, I find most convincing (as did the justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court) the hypothesis that three task force members, later exposed as corrupt cops, worked to sabotage the Mulligan homicide investigation lest the probe reveal their complicity with the victim in a lucrative, ongoing scheme of drug-dealer robberies -- a scheme that remained hidden for three more years, until the Boston Globe's Spotlight Team and an ensuing federal probe peeled off the scab. I am proud that it was my research into the federal grand jury testimony that uncovered Mulligan's role with his corrupt colleagues in the September 1993 robbery of Boston drug dealer Robert Martin, a key finding that helped undo Sean's murder verdict.

This is the stuff of crime novels, but it was only too real in the Mulligan case, creating rot at the heart of the criminal justice system that we could not ignore. The integrity of our justice system hinges on truth.

The courts have found that Sean Ellis was wrongly convicted through a proceeding in which evidence was contaminated by the bias of corrupt detectives, important leads were not investigated, and key information was withheld from his trial lawyers by prosecutors. As a result, nearly 22 years of a young man's life and potential were unconscionably snuffed out. 

I'm pleased to have been part of the huge legal effort to let sunshine into the Sean Ellis case and finally make things right.

Elaine Murphy

Senior Justice Fellow, Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Brandeis University

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Recap of Key Events following the 2013 Ellis Retrial Motion

  • On May 5, 2015, after hearing eight days of testimony in Boston's Suffolk Superior Court, Judge Carol S. Ball reversed Sean Ellis's convictions for murder and armed robbery, paving the way for a new, fair trial. Judge Ball cited prosecutors' lapses in not disclosing or pursuing other, credible leads, and also the bias of three investigating Boston detectives (Kenneth Acerra, Walter Robinson, and John Brazil) who, at the time, were committing armed robberies with the victim and thus had an interest in keeping the Mulligan murder probe from "turning in their direction."

Accordingly, the court concludes that this is a case where justice was not done.
  • On May 12th, 2015, Judge Ball set $50,000 bail, which Sean Ellis's family raised through a grassroots effort and presented to the court on June 3, setting him free, on the condition that he wear a GPS monitor ankle bracelet.

  • On September 9, 2016, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously upheld Judge Ball's 2015 ruling to reverse Sean Ellis's 1995 murder and robbery convictions and grant him a retrial.

  • Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley announced that Sean Ellis's retrial -- his fourth for the murder of Det. John Mulligan — would take place on October 18, 2018. Conley then retired on September 26, 2018 and was replaced by interim DA John Pappas, who moved the trial date to September 2019. But the November 2018 election of Rachael Rollins to the post of DA was expected to usher in a new legal landscape: During the primary debates, Rollins pledged to take a look at the case, saying it would be one of her top priorities upon assuming office in January 2019.

  • Unexpectedly, on Dec. 17, 2018, DA John Pappas held a press conference to announce that Suffolk County prosecutors would drop murder and robbery charges against Ellis, deeming a fourth trial unwinnable due to fading witness memories and the taint of three corrupt police investigators who investigated the Mulligan homicide. (See page titled, “Charges dropped…”)

Elaine Murphy speaking to the press outside Boston's Suffolk County Courthouse after Sean Ellis's release on bail on June 3, 2015.

Elaine Murphy speaking to the press outside Boston's Suffolk County Courthouse after Sean Ellis's release on bail on June 3, 2015.

July 2015: Two friends reunite: Mark Murphy and Sean Ellis, classmates and friends from1982-85 at Mitchell Elementary School, Needham, MA.

July 2015: Two friends reunite: Mark Murphy and Sean Ellis, classmates and friends from1982-85 at Mitchell Elementary School, Needham, MA.

The Boston Globe op-ed piece I submitted from Montreal in September 1995 upon learning of Sean Ellis's conviction (text below).

The Boston Globe op-ed piece I submitted from Montreal in September 1995 upon learning of Sean Ellis's conviction (text below).

September 21, 1995

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Our weekend guests arrived from Maine with laughter and greetings and tales of getting lost. Along with their bags they plopped down the morning’s Boston Globe.  I glanced at the familiar nameplate with affection.  For displaced Bostonians, the Globe’s front page is visual comfort food.  I couldn’t wait to sit down later and digest the local news.

But what does that headline say?  “Ellis convicted on 3d try in murder of detective.”  Pictured alongside it is a downcast young black face.

Funny.  We once knew a Sean Ellis, about a dozen years ago in Needham.  He was a quiet, sweet African-American boy from the Boston projects.  The Metco Program bused him each day to our local school.  That Sean Ellis had become our son Mark’s friend in the third and fourth grades.

Who could this Sean Ellis be?

My eyes dart down the column, looking for identifying features. “21, of Dorchester.”  Omigod!  Same age as Mark.  Could this convicted cop killer be that polite, painfully shy Sean Ellis?  That impeccably clean Sean Ellis, with a mother’s love and hopes so evident in his crisply ironed shirts?

By now the young visage looks familiar.  Nausea rises as the truth sinks in.  The two Sean Ellises are one and the same.

The memories flood back.  The Needham Sean Ellis had a disabling speech impediment. His stutter mortified him, and he hardly ventured a word.  The statement in the Globe takes on new meaning:  “Ellis never testified in any of the trials…”

What could have gone wrong in this man’s life and mind to transform the agreeable child we knew to a convicted murderer?

My husband and I recalled Sean’s several visits to our home, occasions the whole family enjoyed.  He was a reserved boy.  Some details came back:  the time Sean slept over so he could sing in the Christmas concert, his next-day’s clothes nearly folded for school.  At Mark’s birthday, Sean shyly presenting his gift: a paperback book, clearly used and clearly adult in subject matter – all the family could muster.  That paperback is still on our family’s bookshelf.

The time Mark went to Sean’s birthday party in the projects and came home dazzled.  The occasion had given rise to a neighborhood barbecue.  There were chicken and ribs and music and dancing.  “Why don’t we have a party like that?” Mark wanted to know.  A loving mother was behind it all.

“Ellis’ mother, Mary, had attended each day of the three trials, but was absent yesterday when the verdict was returned…”

Our older daughter also knew Sean.  With Mark away, she was the first to hear of the ghastly Boston murder and Sean’s conviction.  She blurted out, “It must have broken his mother’s heart!”

We recalled that tragedy had visited Mary ["Jackie"] Ellis before during those Needham days.  Sean’s older brother, Joe Moody, was also a Needham-Boston Metco student.  One hot June afternoon, a middle school classmate invited his friends over for a pool party.  All the kids jumped into the back yard pool, but Joe didn’t come back up.  He sank like a stone and drowned, too embarrassed to admit he couldn’t swim.  Nobody thought to ask.

After leaving the Needham schools 10 years ago, Mark lost track of his city friend.  Just this past summer he'd mused, "I wonder what ever happened to Sean Ellis.  Remember those feet?”  Of course we did. They were huge -- oversize anchors weighing down the slimmest of boys.

When he heard the dreadful news from Boston, Mark was stricken.  To him, Sean had been a good buddy.  He remembered that stand-out day my husband treated them both to a Red Sox game and McDonald’s. 

Life imprisonment without parole.  How sad the paths of two Needham classmates could diverge so greatly.  Though a world apart economically, our own son was no golden boy.  He had his difficulties in school but has managed to surmount them, and it looks like he’ll be a late bloomer.

Mary’s 21-year-old Sean will not be blooming.

And yet as a young student he had an uncommon sweetness about him; that, and a caring family, and all the opportunity and hopes the Metco program represented.  What turned him to violence?

If we knew the answer and ways to prevent it, the Mulligan family might not be grieving. Or Mary Ellis.

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Website references

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HARVARD UNIVERSITY, Master of Education, 1978. Concentration: Human Development / Psychology   

BOSTON COLLEGE, Bachelor of Arts, cum laude, 1967. Major: English, Minor: Education              



Writing and Editing:

Senior Justice Fellow, Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Brandeis University, 2015-2019

Writer, editor, publications manager, Elaine Murphy & Associates, 1988-2000 (retired). Clients included McGill University (Faculty of Law, Development Office; Office of Student Affairs); Montreal Neurological Institute; University of Alberta (Faculties of Medicine and Business); Alberta Economic Development Authority; Universalia Management Group; Imasco, Ltd.; Shirmax, Ltd.

Publications editor, Massachusetts Educational Television (MET), 1984-1986

Methods staff writer, A T & T Treasury Division, 1970-1972

Teaching and Administration: 

Regional coordinator,  Basic Skills Improvement Program, Massachusetts Department of Education, Greater Boston Regional Education Center, 1980-1984

Teacher, English and language arts, Boston Public Schools: Federal Title III Gifted & Talented program, Warren-Prescott Elementary School, Charlestown; Barnes Middle School, East Boston, 1968-1970

Teacher/administrator, Family day care, Piscataway, NJ, 1972-1974; Needham, MA, 1978-1979


Flight attendant, Pan American World Airways, 1967-1968

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Free at last, June 3, 2015. Sean Ellis leaves Boston's Suffolk Superior Court holding his mother, Mary's, hand. Arrested at age 19, he spent more than half his life in prison for a crime he maintains he did not commit.  (Getty Images)

Free at last, June 3, 2015. Sean Ellis leaves Boston's Suffolk Superior Court holding his mother, Mary's, hand. Arrested at age 19, he spent more than half his life in prison for a crime he maintains he did not commit. (Getty Images)

Copyright 2013 Elaine A. Murphy. All rights reserved.