Chilling 1993 police murder case unravels in ‘Trial 4’

Trial 4 on Netflix

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

21 years, seven months and 14 days. That was how long Sean Ellis spent in jail for a crime he maintains his innocence against. In Netflix’s newly released docuseries, “Trial 4,” director Remy Burkel unravels the painful legal journey of Ellis, the now 44-year-old man. Packed into eight hard-hitting episodes, Burkel offers a disturbing portrait of crime and corruption embedded in bodies of government that Ellis believes to have placed him in handcuffs to begin with.

Boston police officer and detective John Mulligan was murdered Sept. 26, 1993 during an overnight shift at a local Walgreens store. Mulligan was shot execution-style five times and was pronounced dead within hours. Ellis was approached by Boston police on behalf of his cousin’s murder that happened just three days following the death. During his interview, Ellis admitted he was at that same Walgreens the night Mulligan was killed. Naive of the possible repercussions by placing himself at the scene, Ellis launched himself into the center of a suspect search for the police detective’s murder. During the first two installments of the series, Burkel progresses through the major details of the case through the words of Ellis himself, his several defense attorneys and his friends and family. 

Overlapping voices conspiring over what happened that September night paint distinct directions for the case. Edward McNelley, former captain and head of homicide of the Boston Police Department, declares there is nothing that could convince him that Ellis did not commit the crime. Rosemary Scapicchio, Ellis’ defense attorney, believes otherwise. Cartoon depictions, rendering Ellis both as the murderer and not, help the viewer absorb an explicit understanding of all the possible scenarios. Animated graphics and supporting sound effects create pulsing pictures of the event, ringing deeper in the audience’s mind and reestablishing the gravity of the case with every replay.

Unfolding the story further, Burkel splices in aged news footage to bring life to the case. By having old news reporters and anchors narrate parts of the Mulligan murder, the documentary succeeds in sending the audience back in time with these scratchy film tapes and pixelated videos. It is almost as if you are transported into 1993, witnessing the controversy take place in real time.

The span of Ellis’ legal process isn’t just in 1993, however. To designate relevant events, such as various personal anecdotes from Ellis’ neighbors or the 2018 local Boston political campaign, Burkel adds in a time stamp to specify every scene’s setting introduced in a new cutaway. Although Ellis’ case is nothing but intricate and complex, it is made easily digestible with Burkel’s clear-cut delivery.

To grasp both sides of the coin, Burkel invites people across the board to speak on their positions about the case. Ellis’ childhood friends attest to his gentle character. Ex-police officers reiterate how illegalities unquestionably did not play a role in the litigation. By the end of the documentary, it is evident that the people who supported Ellis’ innocence drove the greater part of the film than those who didn’t. As the audience internalizes Ellis’ heavy introspection on court rulings and indisputable evidence that should’ve protected him — but didn’t — from landing in jail, Burkel conveys his message of the very alive world of deep-seated corruption that affects real lives.

“Trial 4” is no lighthearted tale. It touches on the central issue from the 1993 case that still lives on today: systemic racism against marginalized communities. Burkel exposes closed-door malfeasance within chambers of government and revives the fight for justice for those wrongfully convicted. There is urgency in his portrayal, a signal to the audience to grasp the movement as their own. While Ellis is now enjoying the fruits of freedom after 22 grueling years of being locked away, “Trial 4” reminds us that Ellis’ story is a product of ingrained issues that exist at the roots of the most powerful positions in the United States then and now.

Contact Ashley Tsai at [email protected].