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.
“Trial 4” exposes how Boston police historically sought Black suspects to charge in unsolved crimes. As Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker puts 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” premieres Nov. 11 on Netflix.