Convicted of driving the getaway car in a robbery that resulted in the fatal shooting of Detective John Schroeder in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1974, Ella Mae Ellison was convicted of first-degree murder and armed robbery and sentenced to two concurrent life sentences. She was exonerated in July 1978 after two of her co-defendants recanted their testimony.
On November 30, 1973, three black youths from a local housing project entered Suffolk Loan Co., a pawn shop in Roxbury, a few miles from downtown Boston. They were all armed with handguns and began removing jewelry from the pawn shop’s display cases. An off-duty officer, Detective John Schroeder, entered the store and, when he interrupted their attempt to steal from the jewelry trays, he was shot and killed. Within three days, the robbers were located and arrested.
One of the three robbers said that an 18-year-old “lighter-skinned black girl” was the driver of their getaway car. As an accomplice under the felony-murder rule, she was considered as guilty as the one who fired the fatal bullet. In the course of the plea-bargaining conversations among the defendants, their attorneys, and the prosecution, two of the defendants, Nathanial Williams and Anthony Irving, agreed to testify against the triggerman, Terrell Walker, and against “Sue,” the female driver. In exchange, the prosecutors agreed to accept their pleas of guilt to second-degree murder.
A few months later, “Sue” was located and arrested in Rochester, New York.
According to Williams and Irving, “Sue” was, in fact, Ella Mae Ellison. Ellison, a mother of four children, was 27 years old, not 18, and was very dark-skinned. The description that the defendants gave of her was completely incorrect. Ellison told authorities that, at the time of the crime, she was on her way home from a shopping expedition. She had recently moved back in with her parents in Rochester, had no criminal record, and, unlike the three defendants, was not a drug addict. She did know the men and had driven them in her car several times, which gave them the opportunity to describe her 1969 Ford LTD as the getaway car.
Ellison was charged with first-degree murder and armed robbery. On November 26, 1974, the jury convicted her and sentenced her to two concurrent life sentences in prison. Newspaper articles reported that she looked “stunned” by the verdict and said, “I can’t live without my kids. I’ll kill myself.”
In May 1976, Williams and Irving recanted their trial testimony. They admitted that there had been no fourth participant in the crime and that Ellison had no connection with the robbery or their getaway. They said they had invented “Sue” in order to shift the blame from Irving, who, at 17, was the youngest of the three robbers. They felt compelled to enter into a plea bargain because they feared that, otherwise, they might receive the death penalty. What they did not realize was that no death penalty existed at that time in Massachusetts. They were sentenced to life in prison.
In July 1978, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts unanimously reversed Ellison’s conviction based on the recantations of Williams and Irving, and the withholding of this evidence by the prosecution. The charges against Ellison were later dismissed.
In March 1980, Terrell Walker pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of Detective Schroeder and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison. Due to the recantations of Irving and Williams, and the deaths of two other prosecution witnesses, Suffolk District Attorney Newman Flanagan said he “regrettably had to enter into a plea bargain with [Walker’s] counsel.”
Flanagan added that “a jury of [Walker’s] peers found him guilty and the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the conviction, as did a judge of the U.S. District Court. Unfortunately, a circuit court of appeals made new law to the benefit of the defendant and to the detriment of the public—a law prosecutors must live with, but with which I do not agree. Nevertheless, I am satisfied the ends of justice, as far as the public is concerned, were met, taking all of the circumstances under consideration.”
- Ariel Milian and Dolores Kennedy
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.