Ella Mae Ellison
In 1974, Ella Mae Ellison was convicted of one count of first-degree murder and four counts of armed robbery for driving the getaway car during a robbery in Boston during which a police officer was murdered. She received concurrent life sentences. No physical evidence linked Ellison to the crime, however, two confessed perpetrators testified that she was their driver.
At trial, the prosecution repeatedly denied Ellison’s attorney access to several early statements made by the two perpetrators that supported the claim that Ellison was not involved in the crime. Therefore, this exculpatory evidence was not presented to the jury. In May 1976, the two perpetrators recanted their testimony in full, thereby undermining the only testimony implicating her at trial. Finding the recantations incredible, the trial judge denied Ellison’s motion for a new trial. However, in 1978, the Supreme Judicial Court vacated her conviction, holding unconstitutional “[t]he prosecutor’s late, piecemeal, and incomplete disclosures” of earlier, exculpatory statements by the perpetrators, whose several conflicting versions of the crime made them “emerge as very willing to lie under oath”. The Court speculated that their motives for implicating Ellison may have been to obtain the benefits of a plea bargain, or to hide the identity of the real driver. The Court “concluded that these two related weaknesses put the convictions so far in question that we are obliged to set aside the verdicts with leave to the Commonwealth to retry the case.” (Commonwealth v. Ellison, 376 Mass. 1, 3 (1978). Subsequently, the Commonwealth dropped the charges against Ellison. She had spent four years in prison.