Exonerated on July 18, 1978
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 after a pawnshop robbery in Roxbury, Massachusetts. As the robbery was taking place, a police officer was shot and killed. Ellison received concurrent life sentences. No physical evidence linked Ellison to the crime, however, two confessed perpetrators testified that she was their driver as part of a plea bargain.
Though Ellison knew the perpetrators, she did not match the description given by them to the police upon their arrest. The driver was described as a “light skinned 18-year old”, which did not match Ellison, who had darker skin and was 27 at the time of the crime. The statements given by the two perpetrators were the major contributor to Ellison’s conviction.
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 “[t]he prosecutor’s late, piecemeal, and incomplete disclosures” unconstitutional. 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.