Justice for Sean Ellis

Sean K. Ellis spent nearly 22 years in prison for the 1993 murder of Boston Detective John Mulligan. He steadfastly maintained his innocence, and in 2015 his conviction was overturned - a ruling unanimously upheld in 2016 by the Mass. SJC. Yet he is facing a retrial in spring '18 on the same charge.

WEBSITE AUTHOR

My name is Elaine Murphy. I'm a retired publications editor and former teacher, a married mother of three grown children, grandmother of two, and a 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, below).

Reading of the many questions and issues in the Mulligan case -- allegations of police misconduct in handling evidence and witnesses, the murders of four young people connected to the case, two 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 newspaper accounts. This led to visiting Sean in prison. My role increasingly deepened, until I was working alongside his family and attorneys to re-analyze testimony and re-investigate witnesses and evidence. This website highlights what I've come to know about Sean and his case in my 17 years of research, including the reasonable doubt I discern and that would have moved me to vote not guilty, had I been a juror.

Beyond the case, the section of this website titled "Sean's life" seeks to portray Sean as he was and is -- to supplant the "beast" image of him portrayed in the 1993 Boston press with that of a very human boy who came of age amidst significant chaos.  He 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 is prohibited from discussing that time with anyone but his attorneys, a sound legal practice. But I've come to believe that he was convicted with insufficient, conflicting, and possibly false evidence.

Among the many compelling points attorney Rosemary Scapicchio raises in her 2013 retrial motion, I find most convincing the hypothesis that three task force members, later exposed as corrupt cops, worked to sabotage the Mulligan 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 federal probe of Boston Police corruption peeled off the scab.

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 cannot ignore. The integrity of our justice system hinges on truth.

If Sean Ellis was wrongly convicted through a proceeding in which key information was withheld from the jury or, at worst, manufactured by corrupt detectives, then a young man's life and potential have been unconscionably snuffed out. And if we conclude this, yet allow it to happen, there's nothing to prevent it from happening to me, or to you.

I fully support Sean Ellis's retrial motion. We have one last chance to let sunshine into his case and make things right. 

How can we turn away?

Epilogue

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.

Thanks to Judge Ball's courageous ruling, justice has finally been done.

We did not turn away.

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

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

July 2015: Two friends reunite: Mark Murphy and Sean Ellis, classmates and friends at Mitchell Elementary School, Needham, MA, from 1982-85.

July 2015: Two friends reunite: Mark Murphy and Sean Ellis, classmates and friends at Mitchell Elementary School, Needham, MA, from 1982-85.

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).

MONTREAL, QC

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?

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 come 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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ELAINE A. MURPHY

EDUCATION

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

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

 

PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND

Writing and Editing:

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

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

Other:

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 2013-17 Elaine A. Murphy