Sean K. Ellis’s life was derailed by a corrupted police homicide investigation. He served 22 years in prison before his murder conviction was eventually overturned in a protracted case that drew international attention and was the focus of a Netflix docuseries.
But quietly in 2021, Ellis received monetary atonement from the City of Boston: a $16 million settlement for wrongdoing by the Police Department, the largest single legal payout the city has made in recent years, according to figures obtained through a public records request.
“It was the right thing to do,” Ellis’s attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio, said of the settlement, adding that it would have cost the city more had the matter gone to trial.
The Ellis settlement represents a large chunk of the total amount of the city’s payouts from 2020 to 2022. All told, Boston paid more than $39 million in 970 legal claims in that time, the vast majority of which — $31 million — involved police.
“There is a systemic problem in the Boston Police Department,” said Scapicchio. “What happened to Sean has more than likely happened to other people similarly situated — young Black men — and it’s not being addressed.”
The Police Department disagrees, saying through a spokesperson that “it is committed to accountability and transparency,” and noted that the newly created Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission and city’s Office of Police Accountability and Transparency “are directed at assuring outside oversight of these efforts.”
“[W]e want to be clear that the Boston Police Department of today is working each day to increase partnerships and communications with the residents and businesses we serve to enhance public safety and to make sure we are truly addressing community concerns in the best ways possible,” the department said in a statement.
Jeffrey S. Gutman, a George Washington University professor who studies compensation for the wrongfully convicted, said it’s difficult to know “whether these payouts are going to deter bad conduct in the future.”
“It’s possible but the feedback is so long,” he said. “These cases happened 30 or 40 years ago.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu noted she has demanded the city’s police unions agree to certain reforms in new contracts now being negotiated. (The city and its largest police union may soon be headed to arbitration.)
“Through reform in collective bargaining and in partnership with Commissioner [Michael] Cox and the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, we will continue working to transform the structures of public safety to restore trust and community in Boston,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Some of the city payouts were very small — more than 350 were for less than $1,000. The reasons for the payouts varied: some were for property damage or improper towing of a car, while others were for personal injury or discrimination.
After the Police Department, the next highest total payout figure for claims linked to a department between 2020 and 2022 was the Fire Department at $3.8 million, followed by Boston Public Schools at $1.1 million.
Among the larger payouts was $4 million to James Watson who, like Ellis, spent decades behind bars in connection with a murder case that was marred by law enforcement misconduct.
And then there was $100,000 for Justin Desmarais, who was accidentally shot in the head by police while working as a valet at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Some of the payouts have been made public, such as Lieutenant Detective Donna Gavin collecting more than $2 million from the Police Department in a gender discrimination case that cast a spotlight on the treatment of women in the police force.
But many had not been publicly known, including the two, decades-old wrongful conviction cases that drove the dollar figures skyward. The Ellis case, in which he was accused of fatally shooting Detective John J. Mulligan in 1993, effectively ended in 2021, with a judge throwing out a firearms charge, calling the matter a “sad chapter in the history of our criminal justice system.” Ellis had been released from prison in 2015 after judges found significant evidence of police misconduct in the case, and the first degree murder charge he faced in the case was spiked in 2018.
Large legal settlements related to police misbehavior are not a new phenomenon in the city, said Jamarhl Crawford, a local police reform advocate who is also Ellis’s cousin.
“There’s all sorts of general misconduct,” he said.
Crawford said the $31 million figure “tells me that this is a pattern.”
The same year Ellis received his payout, James Watson, who was wrongfully convicted in 1984 of killing 28-year-old Boston cab driver Jeffrey S. Boyajian, was paid $4 million.
In an ultimately successful effort to get his conviction cleared, Watson’s attorneys argued that the case hinged on a witness who identified him under hypnosis, a practice that has since been discredited. They also noted that prosecutors in the case held back evidence about the police identification of Watson. He was imprisoned for more than 40 years.
Barbara Munro, an attorney who represented Watson, thought the $4 million figure was “insufficient for what he went through.”
”I don’t know how you put a price tag on that,” she said.
What Watson wants more than anything, Munro says, is an apology from law enforcement. What happened to her client, she acknowledged, could happen in modern-day Boston.
“Back then, it was pretty much a free-for-all — a lot of it was race-based,” she said. “It still is.”
Desmarais, meanwhile, was doing his job as a valet at Brigham and Women’s on Feb. 7, 2020, when police inadvertently shot him in the head, leaving him with bullet fragments in his brain and only half of his vision in one eye. Police had arrived on the scene to confront Juston Root, a man with a history of mental illness who was brandishing what turned out to be a paintball gun.
Ultimately, Root led police on a car chase to Brookline, where he was shot at 31 times by police at close range. Wrongful death litigation regarding the fatal shooting is ongoing.
Last summer, the city paid $100,000 to Desmarais. A message left with Desmarais’ attorney was not returned Tuesday.
John R. Ellement and Daigo Fujiwara of the Globe staff contributed to this report.