Sean Ellis brings his story to the 2017 Innocence Network Conference
by Elaine Murphy. (An edited version of this article appeared in the April 13, 2017 Dorchester Reporter.)
Sean Ellis, former Dorchester resident, recently traveled to San Diego as a guest of The New England Innocence Project to participate in the March 24-25 Innocence Network Conference. The Network, an affiliation of 56 U.S. and 13 non-U.S. organizations, hosts the conference annually in support of its mission of "providing pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted, and working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions."
Ellis, who was accompanied by his sister, Shar'Day Taylor, a Commonwealth of Massachusetts social worker, had to pass through gigantic hoops to get to San Diego, hoops that began nearly a quarter century ago. First, over his protestations of innocence, he was convicted in 1995 -- at his third trial, after two hung juries -- of the 1993 murder and armed robbery of a Boston detective. From prison he endured the denials of his 1998 motion for a new trial and its appeal. He ultimately spent more than 22 years incarcerated until Boston defense attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio, took up his case and in 2015 convinced a Suffolk Superior Court judge that, due to police misconduct and prosecutorial lapses, he deserved a retrial. Ellis was immediately released, but not before 21 years, 7 months, and 29 days of his life were lost behind bars.
Now age 43, and free on bail as he braces for yet his fourth trial on murder one charges brought by Suffolk County prosecutors (its date has yet to be determined), Ellis needed the court's permission to travel out of state and temporarily remove the GPS ankle bracelet he wears 24/7. Chief prosecutor Edmund Zabin objected to his travel, telling the hearing judge, "He never should have been let out" -- this despite the unanimous affirmation of Ellis's wrongful conviction by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2016.
The trip was a thrill for Ellis, the first time he'd been on an airplane. He excitedly filmed the takeoff on his smartphone. "It was the first time I've felt free since I've been out."
Over 550 people attended the conference, including 150 exonerees, and Valerie Jarrett, former advisor to President Obama, kicked off the proceeding with a keynote address.
"There was never a dull moment," said Ellis, who attended such workshop sessions as, "Social Media: Power, Presence & Purpose." At the "Moth Storytelling" workshop, he and more than two dozen other released inmates were allotted five minutes apiece to tell their stories onstage. Sean, by now a seasoned speaker at various forums around Boston, found this a huge challenge. How to compress all he'd gone through into 5 minutes?
He ended up focusing on two life-changing days: The first was in 1993, when at age 19 he walked into a 24-hour drugstore in the early morning hours and bought a box of Pampers for his cousin, and "one and a half weeks later I was arrested for murder." Boston Police Detective John Mulligan, who was guarding the store from his SUV parked in the fire lane outside, was murdered as he slept in in the driver's seat shortly before dawn on September 26, 1993.
The second day Ellis described occurred in prison, when his lawyer brought him the FOIA information that had begun arriving (after an 8-year wait) detailing crimes ongoing in the 1990s by John Mulligan and three other Boston detectives. The surviving trio investigated Mulligan's murder and marshaled every piece of evidence used against Ellis. The men's revealed double lives -- a longstanding enterprise of falsifying warrants and robbing drug dealers -- made Ellis realize there was a bigger story going on behind the scenes.
The courts agreed. As Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote in the SJC's 2016 ruling, "We did not know at that time that these detectives had been engaged with the victim in criminal acts of police misconduct as recently as seventeen days before the victim's murder. The complicity of the victim in the detectives' malfeasance fundamentally changes the significance of the detectives' corruption with respect to their investigation of the victim's murder."
Ellis concluded his San Diego talk by admitting that, over the course of his long imprisonment he lost faith in the system, but never lost faith in himself. "They could not take that from me." As he saw it, in prison offered two choices: either be consumed by the negative environment or grow. "I chose to grow."
That he did, earning a paralegal degree by correspondence course, getting in touch with his emotions through the prison's "Jericho Circle" chapter ("In prison you grow callous," he says) and receiving counseling training in the "Second Chance" program of mentoring youthful offenders.
He described an emotional moment at the conference. Seated at dinner one evening, he turned to his left and recognized as a fellow inmate from MCI Norfolk. Both men were shocked to see each other, because in prison, "You don't discuss your cases" due to strict instructions from defense attorneys not to. "So you have no idea what other people are going through." For years the two had passed each other at Norfolk with a perfunctory, "Hi, How ya doin'?" with not the slightest inkling of each other's situation.
Now, meeting by surprise in San Diego and realizing that the other guy was also wrongfully convicted (this man did 18 years' time), they each spontaneously exclaimed, "You too?" and tightly embraced. The newfound friends now "share a bond like no other," Ellis says.
Asked what he'd like people to know about his conference experience, he pointed to a photo of the stage backdrop proclaiming a total of 2,953 years of incarceration endured by those telling their stories. Even so, "The stage had a certain feeling to it," he said. "It was of love, compassion...maybe even warmth. It felt comforting and warm. There was none of the tension of prison. It was just beautiful."
The lesson Sean Ellis drew from this, that he wants to share, is that "this feeling can exist" in the hearts of people who've been wrongfully imprisoned -- people with every right to hold unrelenting bitterness against the system. People, like him, who've chosen to grow.