Sean Ellis Talks Prison Reform, Netflix, and Healing at Endicott
September 26, 1993, was supposed to be a regular day for Sean Ellis.
The Boston native woke up and ran an errand for his cousin at a local Walgreens. But a few days later, Ellis was arrested for the murder of Detective John Mulligan, who was working as a paid police detail outside of the Walgreens the night Ellis stopped in to purchase diapers for his cousin. It was a crime Ellis didn’t commit and it would become the fight of his life to prove his innocence. He was just 19 at the time.
In a gripping and emotional talk, Ellis described his harrowing and decades-long fight to clear his name to a packed Cleary Lecture Hall on November 9. The event was sponsored by the Center for Belonging & Inclusion.
“There is a problem with our legal system,” said Ellis, who was sentenced to die in prison and spent nearly 22 years incarcerated before Superior Court Judge Carol Ball overturned his conviction in 2015. He was exonerated in 2021 by Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, a year after his story became the subject of the Netflix docuseries Trial 4.
“There are opportunities for us to reimagine what our criminal legal system looks like and how it operates,” Ellis told the rapt crowd. “Right now, we have a carceral system, but the offer is to reimagine it as a transformative one—or a restorative one where the system doesn’t continue to harm people.”
Doing his homework
Now in his 40s, Ellis is today a prison reform activist and Development Associate at Community Servings. He is also a trustee at the New England Innocence Project and Director of the Exoneree Network, which supports the reentry needs of other wrongfully incarcerated individuals.
In prison, Ellis was relegated to a number: W59259. The W stands for Walpole, Mass., one of the sites where he was imprisoned, and the number means that he was the 59,250th prisoner to enter the prison system.
While locked up, Ellis went to trial. Three of them, to be exact. The first two resulted in hung juries, so the Commonwealth tried him again. During the third trial, the jury deliberated for just three hours before returning a conviction.
As painstakingly detailed in Trial 4, there were numerous peculiarities in Ellis’ case; namely, prosecutorial misconduct, witness tampering, and police corruption, including Mulligan’s collusion with three other officers on falsifying search warrants.
While in court, Ellis had a brief but defining conversation with another man, also in court. He’d seen Ellis sitting at a table with some papers and said, “Are you doing your homework?”
Ellis, a high school graduate, took him literally. “No, I graduated,” Ellis shot back.
“No,” the man replied, “are you working on your case?”
Growing up, Ellis recalled, he’d gotten in a bit of trouble at school and a guidance counselor asked him what he wanted to do with his life. “I said I wanted to be a lawyer,” Ellis said. But he began doubting himself after school kids picked on him for his stutter.
Even so, Ellis said, “that desire as a young kid and then being asked that question, I want to say it was kind of written, right?”
In prison, Ellis did start doing his homework.
He requested his case files and picked at the holes in the case. Encouraged by his mother and a stack of law books, Ellis wrote legal arguments to support his innocence, including rebuking the statement of two witnesses, who said they saw Ellis at Walgreens that night after viewing the film The Bodyguard.
But as Ellis discovered, The Bodyguard was released in 1992, not 1993, and wasn’t even playing in Boston that night.
In 2004, attorney Rosemary Scapicchio took on Ellis’ case, filing a Freedom of Information Act request for all records, which took nearly a decade to obtain due to obfuscation. After finally receiving the files, she and Ellis learned about hidden exculpatory evidence, tips that went uninvestigated, and investigations into the officers involved—all of which eventually led to Ellis’ freedom.
From dehumanization to healing
These days, Ellis’ prison reform advocacy takes him from college campuses to rallies and beyond. At Endicott, he spoke emotionally of the degradation he felt while incarcerated, including being strip searched after receiving visitors.
After a visit, “you feel full,” he said, “but then there’s an immediate attack on that feeling because when they leave, the first thing that happens is you have to wait to go in a room and be stripped and searched. Stop and think about that and what it does to a person’s humanity—not being able to say no or else you’d be sent to the hole.”
Even worse, he described, was learning that a visitor is coming only to be told they were a no-show.
“You shower, moisturize, dress in your prison best, and then that person’s a no-show,” he said. “But then you go pick the phone—and you’re in your feels because you’re looking forward to the visit, to that connection, to getting as far as you could out of the prison—and you’re told, ‘I was there! They didn’t let me in. They said I had the wrong pants, the wrong shirt.’”
Even obtaining necessities like toilet paper became a constant negotiation between asking a fellow prisoner to borrow some or an often racist, recalcitrant corrections officer. Ellis also had the opportunity to take college courses, but the prison denied him.
“I had to break myself down to hold myself together,” he said. “I had to tell myself that the things that matter didn’t matter.”
After his conviction was overturned, that detachment he used as a defense mechanism fed into difficulties assimilating into outside life. He had trouble connecting with others along with a lack of experience, a lack of exposure to technology. He didn’t know how to write a job resume or even turn on a computer.
“What you see today is a result of my desire, my willingness, and my want to not succumb,” he said. “And what you see today is a result of me being connected with other men who were incarcerated, wanting to do work on themselves.”
He called for people to get involved and urge lawmakers to push for prison reform and to hold officials accountable for their coverups and misdeeds.
“It’s hard work but it’s noble work,” he said. “And at the other end of that work are the other Sean Ellises of the world.”
Learn more about the Exoneree Network and the New England Innocence Project.
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