One of the City’s Most Notorious Murder Convictions Is In Jeopardy

Sean Ellis has already served 20 years of a life sentence for the brutal murder of Boston Police detective John Mulligan, but new revelations unsealed this week could vacate his sentence.

An old, previously unreleased document has shaken up one of Boston’s most notorious and controversial murder cases, threatening to force a judge to vacate the conviction of man who has served 20 years of a life sentence for killing a police detective.

The internal report, written a few days after Detective John Mulligan was shot to death in his car on September 26, 1993, discusses allegations made by one Boston police officer implicating another. The detectives investigating Mulligan’s murder dismissed the story as false; but, the apparent failure to disclose this lead might require a retrial for Sean Ellis, who is serving a life sentence without parole.

If so, it could re-open a case long suspected of involving police corruption.

At a hearing on Thursday, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Carol Ball expressed her view that, under current norms, prosecutors would be required to disclose the report to the defense. She also indicated that the contents could likely have affected the trial to an extent that she might need to vacate the conviction.

Ball scheduled an evidentiary hearing for August to determine whether the report was actually disclosed (which prosecutors are not conceding at this point); whether it fell under the specified discovery request; and whether the trial might have been affected. The report was among several related documents discovered and turned over by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office on Wednesday, found as they sort through boxes of material in response to court orders.

The report documents that Detective George Foley told investigators about a conversation he had, earlier in September, with the adult son of Detective Richard Armstead. The son, according to Foley, had said that Armstead had a beef with Mulligan because “he won’t leave my 14-year-old sister alone.” “He’s gonna kill him,” the son said, adding that his father knew that Mulligan sleeps in his car at Walgreens: “You’re gonna read about it in the papers, shot between the eyes at Wallgreens[sic].” That’s exactly how Mulligan was found, in front of a Walgreens in Roslindale, where he had been working a security detail.

That report, along others newly disclosed, shows that the investigating detectives were immediately skeptical of Foley’s story. They asked Armstead’s son, who denied saying any of it—even stating that he had no younger sister. Convinced that it was a false accusation, BPD supervisors determined that Foley was suffering from stress, temporarily relieved him of duty, and made him check into a hospital for evaluation.

Regardless, allegations against other potential suspects—especially specifying a potential motive—must be disclosed to the defense, so that they may pursue that as an alternative theory to present to a jury.

And, Ellis’s defense attorney Rosemary Scapicchio suggests that the police did not even sufficiently investigate the allegation to be sure it was untrue. They had only the denial of the son, who might well be motivated to cover up for his father.

And, Scapicchio claims to have found evidence that there may have been two younger sisters—likely brought into the family through foster care.

The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office insists that, even if the reports were not turned over, the information in them was already known to Ellis’s defense attorneys through other means. Spokesperson Jake Wark references an FBI report from 1993, indicating that attorneys David Duncan and Norman Zalkind “were aware of this line of inquiry prior to the trial. Not only has this allegation been shown to be false, but also that Ellis’s trial team was aware of the allegations prior to the trial.”

“No, we weren’t,” Zalkind says. They had heard various rumors that a police officer was involved, “but not this. I have no memory of that at all.”

Wark appears to be referring to a report documenting that an undisclosed source told an FBI officer that Mulligan “might have been killed to keep him from talking. A Boston Police Officer might have been involved in Mulligan’s death. Source was told the above by David Dunkin and attorney that is partners with Norman Zalkine [sic].”

Mulligan’s murder has long been the subject of intense speculation. In 1996—five months after Ellis was convicted, in his third trial, for Mulligan’s murder—the Boston Globe exposed corruption at Mulligan’s West Roxbury station, centered around Detectives Kenneth Acerra and Walter Robinson. Mulligan was rumored to be part of that corruption, even at the time of the murder. Judge Ball made note of that at Thursday’s hearing. “I was around then (at the time of Mulligan’s murder), and from the get-go this was all out there in the ether,” she said. “It’s hard to believe that the detectives were not aware of the rumors about Robinson, Acerra, and Mulligan.”

Acerra and Robinson ultimately pleaded guilty to federal charges, but Mulligan has never been definitively linked to their schemes. Scapicchio believes that might have changed now as well. She has obtained Grand Jury testimony from the Acerra-Robinson investigation, in which a victim names Mulligan as a participant in an Acerra-Robinson shake-down. Scapicchio is trying to force the disclosure of additional material related to internal BPD corruption investigations.