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Former NPS student talks wrongful conviction

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By Laura Drinan
Hometown Weekly Reporter

In recent years, television has brought wrongful convictions to light, broadcasting the faces of those who had wasted years behind bars for a crime they did not commit. Unfortunately, it’s all too common and happens in our own backyard.

Sean Ellis, a former Needham student, speaks about the 21 years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit.  Photos by Laura Drinan

Sean Ellis, a former Needham student, speaks about the 21 years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit. Photos by Laura Drinan

Sean Ellis, a former Needham Public School student through the METCO program, spent more than half of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit. On October 26 at the Congregational Church of Needham, Ellis spoke about his trials, experiences in jail, and his life as a free man after his conviction was overturned. Ellis now collaborates with the New England Innocence Project (NEIP), which serves the New England states to prevent and fight wrongful convictions.

Stephanie Hartung, a Professor at Northeastern Law School and on the NEIP Board of Trustees, joined Ellis to facilitate the discussion with the community.

“I knew Sean for maybe a year or so before I found out that he went to school in Needham,” said Hartung, who is also a Needham resident. “When he told me his story, and why he left, and about some of the racial issues, I felt like Needham really failed him as a community in some ways.”

Eventually after his brother’s death in 1984, Ellis asked to leave the METCO program and transferred to Dorchester High School, where he graduated from in 1992.

In 1993, Boston Detective John Mulligan was murdered in his SUV outside of a 24-hour convenience store. Ellis was quickly brought in as a suspect, as he had bought diapers for his cousin’s baby the hour of the murder.

Despite a lack of evidence, Ellis was convicted and imprisoned at 19-years-old until Suffolk Superior Court Justice Carol S. Ball vacated the convictions – nearly 22 years later.

Now 43 years old, and having spent over half of his life in jail, Ellis has been readjusting to normal life, doing demolition work, and speaking about his wrongful conviction with the NEIP. However, his struggle with the legal system is not over yet, as he is awaiting a fourth trial – the Commonwealth’s appeal of the case – that could send him back to jail.

“I know on some level he felt a lot of love and support from Needham,” said Hartung. “But it’s complex and there are subtle ways implicit biases come into play. My hope was that I could help open their eyes to the see these biases that end in wrongful convictions.”

Now knowing Ellis’ story, the Needham community is hopeful that with donations to the NEIP and their word to support Sean’s innocence, they will not let one of their own return to prison.

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