By BRIAN LOWRY
Ever since Netflix helped launch the modern true-crime docuseries craze with Making a Murderer five years ago, networks and services have been seeking stories with similar heft. Trial 4 fits that bill – dealing with police misconduct, systemic racism and a miscarriage of justice – without quite reaching those levels, mostly due to stretching the project over a few-too-many parts.
The central story – the multiple trials, and eventual conviction, of Sean Ellis for the 1993 murder of Boston police detective John Mulligan – certainly resonates. Investigators fixed on Ellis, then just 19, despite shaky evidence, resulting in two mistrials before his conviction and life sentence. Ellis served more than 20 years until a new attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio, took up his case, revealing corruption within the department.
“The way that the police said it happened didn’t make any sense,” Scapicchio, who emerges as a genuine hero, says in describing her initial reaction, running headlong into the reluctance of law enforcement and prosecutors to admit mistakes while protecting their own.
Using animation to reenact the actual crime – and various accounts and theories of what might have transpired – director Rémy Burkel methodically breaks down the narrative, jumping back and forth in time as the blunt-talking Scapicchio and more reserved Ellis prepare for a fourth trial (hence the title), having won that right in 2015.
The dense back story includes salacious details about the victim, which potentially explain why others might have harbored motives to kill him; questions about a key witness, Rosa Sanchez, amid reports that corrupt cops pressured witnesses and even fabricated informants; and eventually a campaign for district attorney that ushers in reformer Rachael Rollins, offering the prospect of progress after cops had been allowed to bend and break rules with few repercussions from that office.
Trial 4 exposes how Boston police historically sought Black suspects to charge in unsolved crimes. As Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker put it, “The cops were just looking for someone to pin this murder on.”
With policing under the microscope, Trial 4 possesses a greater sense of timeliness and considerable weight. Eight hours, however, is a lot of time to keep rehashing the specifics of Ellis’ story – an increasingly common excess in the docuseries genre – as tragic, upsetting and ultimately inspiring as that might be.
While Making a Murderer provided something of a template, that was distinguished in part by its trove of interrogation video, and frankly, its novelty at the time. There’s been a whole lot of true crime, sadly chronicling other travesties, in the years since.
That hardly undercuts what the filmmakers (a team that includes Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who also produced The Staircase) accomplish in terms of Trial 4’s relevance and urgency. The main and by-now familiar drawback is that the series’ pacing doesn’t exhibit a bit more of the latter.
Trial 4 premiered Nov. 11 on Netflix.