The first problem with the case against him was the sparse and questionable evidence upon which it rested. Ellis bought diapers at the same Walgreens where the detective was shot, but the foundation of the case was based on the murder weapon being found near Ellis’ home. Troublingly, the detectives who found the weapon – Kenneth Acerra and Walter Robinson – were later convicted on federal corruption charges for, among other things, falsifying evidence.
Ellis’ case highlighted a recurring problem in Boston where police routinely mishandled crime scenes, haphazardly collected evidence, and relied heavily on the testimony of eyewitnesses. In 1991, the Boston Globe investigated Boston Police for all these problems, as well as for systemic racism and even police payments to witnesses.
Despite the obvious shortcomings in their case against Ellis, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office pushed ahead. The resulting conviction was overturned by an appeals court, as were the convictions that resulted from two subsequent trials.
The long series of mistrials, hung juries, and new trials drew the attention of documentary filmmaker Remy Burkel and producer Jean-Xavier Lestrade. The resulting eight-hour series, called Trial 4, closely examines the two-decade history of the case and the context of problematic policing in the racially charged atmosphere of 1990s Boston, Director Burkel told The Guardian. “Going into this, we were thinking: did he get a fair trial or not?”
Rather than delving into the mystery of who killed Detective Mulligan, Trial 4 examines what went wrong in the case against Ellis. Beginning with the consequences in communities of color when Whites pushed back against school desegregation, the documentary covers both the systemic racism in policing and the price paid by Black and Brown citizens. The focus then moves to how these dynamics play out in Ellis’ case.
The final episodes follow Ellis and his lawyer Rosemary Scapicchio as they win a new trial and prepare for a fourth courtroom fight. These episodes highlight the interminable delays and frustrations of the American justice system and particularly exposes how disadvantaged defendants, especially indigent defendants, are when facing the weight of a system that heavily favors the prosecution.
Trial 4 is not the first documentary series to chronicle the systemic failings of the American criminal justice system. When viewed in isolation, each series leads the viewer toward the conclusion that the system is broken, but upon closer examination, the ubiquitous acceptance of faulty forensics, police and prosecutorial misconduct, and a misguided overreliance on eyewitness testimony (which is notoriously unreliable) suggest that the system works exactly as designed and produces the desired results – streamlined convictions in communities of color and poverty-stricken neighborhoods, prisons consistently filled to capacity, and a nearly impenetrable barrier between the wrongly convicted and justice.
In Ellis’ case, justice does eventually triumph. Shortly before the beginning of his fourth trial, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office dropped all charges, citing weak evidence. Ellis was, understandably, relieved, but he was also frustrated that he did not have an opportunity to prove his innocence in a courtroom.
The documentary provides the only forum for Ellis to make his case, and both he and the filmmakers are consistent in their message of accountability and the power of public involvement. Despite what appears to be an evolving public attitude, director Burkel is left to ask the frustrating question, “Why aren’t district attorneys more accountable, and why aren’t police more accountable?” Perhaps that’s another indication that the system is working exactly as intended.
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