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Angel Echavarria's quest for justice
Justice Brandeis Law Project investigation
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Angel Echavarria freed after serving 21 years of life sentence
'When you're innocent, you keep your hope'
SALEM, Mass. — Twenty-one years into a life sentence for a murder conviction that was overturned April 30, Angel Echavarria was set free yesterday at Essex County Superior Court in Salem.
Judge David A. Lowy vacated Echavarria’s murder conviction and ordered him to wear a GPS tracking ankle bracelet until Essex County prosecutors decide whether to retry him, appeal the judge’s decision or drop the case entirely. Other conditions of Echavarria’s release include staying in Massachusetts and not applying for a U.S. passport. Echavarria is originally from the Dominican Republic.
As soon as Echavarria was released from his shackles, the crowd of supporters applauded and he made his way to the courtroom door, stopping to hug his youngest daughter, Ishannis López, 22, who was six months old at the time of his arrest.
“It means a lot to me because I’ve been suffering a lot in there,” Echavarria told reporters gathered outside the courthouse. “Because I am innocent, I knew it would come. I never gave up…. When you’re innocent, you keep your hope.”
From the beginning, Echavarria has maintained his innocence in the Jan. 7, 1994, murder of Daniel Rodriguez in a Lynn, Mass., apartment.
Echavarria had been incarcerated in Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Concord.
“We are deeply grateful that the criminal justice system has finally recognized that Angel Echavarria never received a fair trial,” said Florence Graves, founding director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. The Justice Brandeis Law Project, which is part of the Schuster Institute, has been investigating the case since 2005. “The evidence against Angel was deeply flawed and there was no physical evidence against him. We are thrilled that he has been able to reunite with members of his family after 21 years.”
During the bail hearing the court staff verified with the Department of Corrections and with MCI Concord that Echavarria could be set free from the courtroom rather than return to the prison for a day while his release paperwork was being finalized.
The bail hearing was delayed when the judge's clerk informed him that a request from immigration authorities that Echavarria be detained for 48 hours had just been filed. During a court recess the agent who filed the request was contacted and agreed Echavarria’s release with a GPS monitor would be sufficient. Family members have confirmed that Echavarria had a green card and was lawfully in the country.
“I want to say thank you to everybody who made this happen,” Echavarria said outside the courthouse, gesturing to his lawyer, Leslie O’Brien, and the crowd of students and staff from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.
Echavarria celebrated his release with a lobster dinner with family and friends.
Essex County prosecutors have until June 16 to decide whether to retry Echavarria. They must decide by May 30 whether to appeal the judge’s decision to allow a new trial.
Bail hearing Monday for Angel Echavarria
Judge David A. Lowy overturned his murder conviction. Now will he walk free?
After Superior Court Judge David A. Lowy found that “justice may not have been done,” on April 30 the judge granted a new trial in the case of Angel Echavarria, 48, who was convicted in 1996 of a murder in Lynn, Mass. Echavarria, who has always maintained his innocence, is scheduled for a May 18 bail hearing. Judge Lowy cited ineffective assistance of counsel in his decision to overturn the conviction and described the Commonwealth’s case as “weak.” Echavarria has been incarcerated in Massachusetts for the past 21 years for a crime he has always said he did not commit.
The bail hearing, which is open to the public, will take place at 2 p.m. Monday, May 18, 2015 at Essex County Superior Court, J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center & Salem Trial Courts, 56 Federal St., Salem, MA 01970.
Echavarria has been represented by attorney Leslie O’Brien and his claim of innocence has been investigated by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism’s Justice Brandeis Law Project at Brandeis University.
Details of the case
SALEM, Mass. — On May 18, Angel Echavarria will shuffle into a courtroom at Essex County Superior Court in Salem, his wrists and ankles shackled. That same day, after 21 years behind bars for a crime he has always said he did not commit, Echavarria may walk out of that courtroom a free man.
On April 30, an Essex County Superior Court judge allowed Echavarria’s motion for a new trial, nearly 20 years after he was convicted of murder. No physical evidence has ever linked Echavarria, 48, to the 1994 shooting death of Daniel Rodriguez in a Lynn, Mass., apartment. A jury returned a guilty verdict for both Echavarria and his co-defendant, but the trial judge immediately threw out the co-defendant’s conviction, citing a lack of evidence.
Echavarria has always insisted on his innocence and says that he refused a plea deal prosecutors originally offered him.
Justice Brandeis Law Project begins investigating
When the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University took on Echavarria’s case as part of its Justice Brandeis Law Project, he had no attorney and had already lost his appeals. Since then, staff investigators and student researchers, using painstaking investigative journalism methods, have uncovered inconsistencies and problems: his first attorney’s failure to represent him adequately; discrepancies in the eyewitness testimony; evidence of an alternate suspect whom the police never fully investigated and the prosecution never revealed to the defense; and evidence of sloppy investigative practices.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ case relied on the eyewitness testimony of the victim’s brother, who could not understand time, height, distance, day of the week, what town he was in, didn’t know his own age, had a history of marijuana abuse, and had been drinking on the night of the murder.
The eyewitness described the shooter as a 20-year-old, clean-shaven Puerto Rican male with a “stocky” or “chunky” build. Echavarria was a 27-year-old Dominican who was 5’10”, weighed 135 pounds and had a full mustache at the time of his arrest 10 days later.
Convinced of Echavarria’s likely innocence by the Justice Brandeis Law Project’s meticulous investigation, the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) ultimately assigned attorney Leslie O’Brien to fight for his release. In 2010, O’Brien filed a motion for a new trial, citing, among other points, evidence uncovered by the Justice Brandeis Law Project. That same year, O’Brien successfully moved to have physical evidence in Echavarria’s case – telephone wires the shooter purportedly used to tie up one of the trial witnesses – tested for DNA. The DNA of at least two individuals was detected on the wires, and Echavarria was excluded as a contributor.
Judge Lowy based his decision on the ineffectiveness of Echavarria’s original trial lawyer, Charles H. Robson, who, unbeknownst to Echavarria, at the time of Echavarria's trial had a number of complaints pending against him from the Supreme Judicial Court's Board of Bar Overseers. In 1997, a year after Echavarria's conviction, Robson was suspended from the bar for three years based on a pattern of professional misconduct. Judge Lowy found that Robson had not cross-examined the main eyewitness nearly as thoroughly as he could have, and made an irreparable error in promising the jury that it would hear Echavarria testify to his innocence, while ultimately not calling him to the stand. “It is certainly conceivable,” Judge Lowy wrote, “that the jury's verdict may have been different were it not for Mr. Robson's error.”
Reversals of murder convictions are rare. Echavarria had appealed his 1996 conviction to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, but that court upheld his trial verdict in 1998. On this detail, Judge Lowy remarked, “It is not appropriate for this Court to grant a new trial simply because it has some ‘lingering doubt’ about the outcome of the first trial….The granting of a motion for a new trial in a case in which the Supreme Judicial Court has already conducted plenary review is seldom granted and for good reason; such motions should only be granted with great reticence.”
He concluded, “The weakness of the Commonwealth’s case, along with the performance of Mr. Echavarria’s counsel which fell measurably below that which might be expected from an ordinary fallible lawyer, leaves the Court with a compelling belief that justice may not have been done in this case.”
Since Echavarria’s imprisonment, his five children have grown up from young children to young adults. His mother died while he was in prison, as did other close family members. He had never seen his 21-year-old daughter, his youngest child, until she came to one of his court hearings in May 2014. A former DJ, Echavarria worries that he’ll have trouble adjusting to technological advances of the past two decades.
Echavarria’s supporters have created a GoFundMe page to help him with his short-term expenses.
The Commonwealth has not yet announced whether it will appeal Judge Lowy’s decision, re-prosecute Echavarria, or drop charges entirely.
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