Review of “Trial 4”: the saga of a scapegoat


John J. Mulligan, who haunts the documentary series “Trial 4,” was described at the time of his execution-style murder in 1993 as a still working detective, who had more arrests than most of the Boston forces and, therefore, a corresponding number of enemies. If there had been a list of the 10 officers most likely to be killed, a colleague is quoted here as saying Mulligan would have been at the top of the list. No one remembers him, perhaps predictably, as a traditional cop. In fact, “there was a feeling his past had caught up with him,” recalls a reporter who covered the sensational murder.

Trial 4

Wednesday, Netflix

How Sean Ellis came to spend “21 years, seven months and 29 days” in prison before securing a fourth trial in the Mulligan case is told by “Trial 4” over eight episodes, which even the most rabid fans of real crime and case law indignation could be considered excessive. It’s not. The series, as is, can barely contain the story, which radiates with the narrative, political, and existential reach of a Don DeLillo novel about worlds of poverty, privilege, police corruption, witness tampering, ‘Forensic Self-Preservation and the Whims of Chance: At the time of the murder, Mr Ellis, a 19-year-old with no criminal record and a speech impediment severe enough to make’ Studda ‘his nickname, was purchasing diapers for him. his girlfriend’s baby at the Walgreens where Mulligan was shot. , five times in the face. While everything indicated the murder was a success, Mr. Ellis fit the profile of the “usual suspects” (the title of Episode 2), especially in the wake of the outrage and manhunt that follows. inevitably the murder of a policeman.

To its credit, “Trial 4” only goes where it can rightfully go: The implication that Mulligan’s murder was an assassination is dropped, as law enforcement abandoned it, even though three investigators Principal on the case were then charged with long-term professional misconduct. (which led to Mr Ellis’ favorable decision on the bench in 2015). It also reveals some flaws in the logistical fabric of the defense and prosecution business. The only motive for the murder was the theft of Mulligan’s gun, said former Detective William C. Dwyer, one of the few Boston law enforcement personnel nervous enough to be interviewed by director Remy Burkel. . On the night of the murder, Mr. Ellis was with Terry Patterson, who both parties believed was the trigger. But how would anyone have known that Mulligan was a cop, unless he slept in his car in front of a Boston Walgreens at 3 a.m. marked as a cop? The animation, in which director Burkel provides re-enactments of essential scenes (archival footage is often remarkable for as far as it exists), shows Mulligan in civilian clothes, so I, for one, found that confusing. And as far as “Trial 4” is about systemic racism, it does not explore the effect that the race of the Boston District Attorney and the judge in the case – both of whom were black – might have had on their motivation apparently. political and decidedly anti-Ellis decisions.

Elsewhere, “Trial 4” takes tangential lefts and rights which are not directly en route to the case at hand, but which light up the Boston atmosphere in the early 90s. It also has formidable and articulate witnesses, including jury members from several Ellis trials (the first two were trial overturns, the third a conviction) and reporters such as Toni Locy, a Boston Globe reporter who remembers thinking at the time of D’s arrest. ‘Ellis. , “‘Oh my God, here we go… are we doing another Carol Stuart?” Stuart was murdered in 1989 by her husband, Charles, who at the time made an infamous 911 call claiming a black man shot his wife in their car. The detour that “Trial 4” takes in the Stuart case is enlightening for the race and the Boston police. In Mulligan’s murder, the principal detectives were Walter Robinson and Kenneth Acerra, who, as later established, had a habit of leading colored suspects, although they usually have criminal backgrounds, not Sean. Ellis or Jose de la Rosa, a former Dominican baseball player arrested by Robinson and Acerra in another case and whose story, told at some length in “Trial 4”, was part of a Spotlight talk (l Globe investigative team at the center of the 2015 Oscar-winning film about sexual abuse and the clergy).

Newspaper clipping showing John Mulligan, Terry Patterson and Sean Ellis


Casey S. Joseph

Mr. Burkel manages to make sense of it all. A literal “timeline” that appears on the screen from time to time, filled with dates and a description of the events about to be described, is of great help. Ellis’ colorful lawyer Rosemary Scapicchio, various members of the Ellis family and too few members of the criminal justice community. There’s a list of uncooperative witnesses at the end of every episode, and that says a lot. So does the credits appearance of executive producer Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, whose own directorial efforts have included the Oscar-winning “Murder on a Sunday Morning” and the richly structured multi-year series “The Staircase”. , both of which touched on gnarly subjects. business and miscarriages of justice. Fans of either job will find a lot to love about the legal mazes and behavioral complexities of “Trial 4”.

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Appeared in the print edition of November 11, 2020 as “Trial 4: Saga Of a Scapegoat”.

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