Trial 4

TV review by
Marty Brown, Common Sense Media
Trial 4 TV Poster Image
Messy crime docu explores police corruption and racism.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Trial 4 is about the work and support it takes to undo the effects of systematic racism, and it explores how to heal its victims.

Positive Role Models

Trial 4 is about Sean K. Ellis, an innocent man who endured 22 years of imprisonment. It also features the people who fought on his behalf.


The central event of Trial 4 is the brutal murder of a police officer, which is shown in animated sequences throughout the series. Other archival crime scene footage is shown throughout, and violent crimes and police brutality are frequently discussed. 


Sex is dicussed in vague terms in relation to some of the crimes. For example, one victim is found with his pants around his ankles.


Moderate profanity is used throughout and includes "ass," "damn," "s--t," etc.


One very strange piece of product placement occurs throughout Trial 4. The central crime takes place in front of a chain store, and the store is consistently shown framed so that the name can be seen. Shots of the inside of the store are used, and the store's name is mentioned frequently.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drug dealers are interviewed and discuss selling and using drugs. People are seen drinking alcohol and smoking at times.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Trial 4 is a true crime documentary series about Sean K. Ellis, a man wrongfully imprisoned for the 1993 murder of a police officer. The series shows how Ellis came to be arrested and ultimately exonerated, with a focus on the police corruption and systematic racism that led to his arrest. The central crime is a brutal gun murder that is shown in animated sequences throughout the show. Archival crime scene footage and photos are also featured. Some of the subjects of Trial 4 talk about dealing and using hard drugs. Sexual acts are also vaguely discussed, and moderate profanity is used throughout and includes "ass," "damn," "s--t," etc. The series takes a broad look at racism, corruption, and incompetence in the Boston Police Department and highlights the people who have fought to reverse some of the damage done by it.

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What's the story?

TRIAL 4 is about a history of corruption, incompetence, and systematic racism within the Boston Police Department. The series tells the story of Sean K. Ellis, who in 1993 at age 19 was wrongly imprisoned for the murder of a police officer. It covers his arrest, trials, and eventual release while placing his case within the greater context of the city and country at the time, using other cases to illustrate a complex web of misconduct and the elaborate fight to uncover it.

Is it any good?

True crime shows often use the central case as way to investigate larger issues. Trial 4 uses Sean Ellis's false imprisonment as a way to examine systematic racism within the Boston police department and, by extension, the United States. This is a worthy and timely subject, and one complicated enough to more than warrant an eight-hour documentary. Yet, like many true crime showsTrial 4 consistently feels padded. There are extended montages of low-income housing, and segments where Ellis watches his own trial -- things that have some interest but don't really serve the overarching story. When dealing with something as complex as the relationship between law enforcement and systematic racism, the show's substance needs to be sharp and clear enough to appeal to those who wouldn't typically delve too deep. Ultimately, Trial 4 is mostly an unorganized mess, and the sweeping significance of the story gets lost in the system. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the crime. Who was Detective John Mulligan? What happened to him? Why did his murder receive an exceptional amount of widespread coverage and attention?

  • How did the investigation lead detectives to Sean Ellis? What mistakes were made along the way? What did the police do that was unethical?

  • How does the story of John Mulligan and Sean Ellis help us understand the corruption of the Boston police department? How does this relate to racism in the United States today? 

TV details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love learning about social justice

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