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Angel Echavarria's quest for justice

Justice Brandeis Law Project investigation

Timeline of events

Judge's decision allowing motion for new trial

Media coverage

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BY THE NUMBERS

1,616

Current total of exonerees since 1989. Source: National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan

125

Annual record high number of exonerees, set in 2014. Source:  National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan

$1 million

Approximate total dollars spent incarcerating Echavarria (adjusted for inflation)

9

Boston police officers could have been trained with $1 million

$46,863

Average per prisoner cost for incarceration at MCI Concord in 2014

1

Full-time undergraduate students whose full tuition, fees, room and meal plan could have been covered at UMass Lowell for one year with $46,863

angel-with-daughters

Angel and two of his daughters celebrate his exoneration.

angel-cake
"Congratulations, Angel! Free at last!"
angel-and-son-telescope
Angel and one of his sons take a stroll.
Angel-Echavarria-speaks-to-reporters
With his daughter at his side, Angel Echavarria talks to reporters after his May 18 bail hearing. 
angel eating lobster

Angel enjoys his first meal after his release: lobster dinner at Porthole Restaurant in Lynn, Mass.

"Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide."
Innocence Project

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Angel-E

ANGEL ECHAVARRIA EXONERATED


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SALEM, Mass – Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett announced June 15 that his office will not retry Angel Echavarria for murder.

“Given the lapse in time, our inability to locate witnesses and the lack of forensic evidence not affected by time, it is not feasible to re-try the case at this time,” District Attorney Blodgett said in a press release.

"I'm very happy," says Echavarria, 48, "and grateful to the Schuster Institute and my lawyer, Leslie."

Leslie O'Brien, Echavarria's attorney since 2008, said, "This is one of the best moments in my 31-year career. I just couldn't be happier or more pleased for Angel."

Echavarria was arrested in 1994 for a murder in Lynn, Mass. He was convicted in 1996 and given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. After 21 years behind bars, he was released May 18 on a GPS-tracking bracelet after Superior Court Judge David A. Lowy allowed his motion for a new trial April 30.

"We are deeply grateful to all the dedicated staff and student researchers who have worked tirelessly to prove Angel's innocence," says Florence Graves, founding director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, which investigated Echavarria's case over the course of 10 years. "It seemed obvious to us from the beginning, based on much of the same evidence and stark inconsistencies cited by Judge Lowy, that Angel had not gotten a fair trial.

"Over time, through our deep investigation, it became even clearer to us that Angel was almost surely innocent. None of the so-called evidence fit. And without even factoring in the new science about the unreliability of eyewitness evidence in general, the eyewitness evidence in Angel's case didn't square. It was extremely shaky and very inconsistent."

"No words can explain this moment. I've been waiting for my whole life," wrote Ishannis Lopez, 22, the youngest of Echavarria's five children, after the hearing news of her father's exoneration. "It took 21 years, but finally some justice was done. There's nothing of equal value that will compensate the 21 years lost from his life and all of his loved ones. I'm very grateful for every single person that has dedicated their time to help my father in many different ways."

About the case

In his decision allowing Echavarria's motion for a new trial, Judge Lowy referenced his "deep personal concerns regarding factual innocence." 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. As Judge Lowy noted in his decision, the witness “demonstrated a marked lack of mental acuity over the course of trial."
 
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 after the crime.

Judge Lowy cited in his decision expert testimony presented at Echavarria's evidentiary hearing in December that "there are significant differences in sounds and in meanings of words between Dominican and Puerto Rican accents," and that "the perpetrators spoke enough words such that somebody familiar with the Puerto Rican accent would accurately have been able to distinguish whether their accents were Puerto Rican."

No physical evidence connected Echavarria to the crime. In 2010, DNA testing was performed on telephone wires the shooter purportedly used to tie up one of the trial witnesses. The DNA of at least two individuals was detected on the wires, and Echavarria was definitively excluded as a contributor.

Citing numerous examples, Judge Lowy based his decision allowing Echavarria’s motion for a new trial on the ineffectiveness of Echavarria’s trial attorney, Charles H. Robson. Robson’s performance, the judge wrote, "fell measurably below that which might be expected from an ordinary fallible lawyer." He also cited the fact that Robson “had complaints pending against him from the Board of Bar Overseers” at the time of Echavarria’s trial – unbeknown to Echavarria. Several months after Echavarria's conviction, the Bar Counsel commenced proceedings against Robson, who was suspended from the Bar in 1997 for three years.

Judge Lowy noted that Robson promised the jury in his opening statement that it would hear Echavarria testify that he wasn't at the scene of the murder and knew nothing about the crime. Over the course of the trial, however, Robson never called his client as a witness. “It is certainly conceivable,” wrote the judge, “that the jury's verdict may have been different were it not for Mr. Robson's error.”

He concluded, “The weakness of the Commonwealth’s case, along with the performance of Mr. Echavarria’s counsel...leaves the Court with a compelling belief that justice may not have been done in this case.”

The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism investigated Echavarria’s case over the course of 10 years, unearthing valuable evidence that helped lead the judge to grant an evidentiary hearing last year. The Committee for Public Counsel Services assigned attorney Leslie O’Brien to Echavarria’s case in 2008.

Free for the first time in decades, Echavarria is deciding where to live and what to do with the rest of his life. A former DJ, he had little opportunity for job training behind bars as an inmate with a life sentence. His friends and family have been raising funds to help Echavarria get back on his feet through the crowdfunding site YouCaring.

A court hearing previously scheduled for 2 p.m. today, when the prosecution was expected to announce its decision, has been cancelled.

angel-echavarria-boats.

Angel Echavarria enjoys some fresh air on a Sunday afternoon. After being incarcerated in Massachusetts for 21 years for a murder he has always insisted he did not commit, he was released May 18 at his bail hearing. At his next hearing in Essex County Superior Court, scheduled for June 16 at 2 p.m., prosecutors are expected to announce whether they will retry Echavarria.

Listen to WBUR interview with Florence Graves:

Posted June 2, 2015

Prosecutors will not appeal judge's decision to overturn Angel Echavarria's murder conviction

One more hurdle cleared in his path to freedom


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SALEM, Mass. — Angel Echavarria, who served 21 years of a life sentence for murder, cleared one more hurdle on the path to freedom for a crime he has always insisted he did not commit. The Essex County District Attorney's office confirmed yesterday that it will not appeal Judge David A. Lowy's decision overturning Echavarria's conviction and ordering a new trial.

At a hearing scheduled for June 16 at 2 p.m. at the Superior Court in Salem, prosecutors are expected to announce whether they will retry Echavarria. Echavarria was released May 18 at his bail hearing when Judge Lowy vacated his murder conviction. Judge Lowy overturned Echavarria’s 1996 murder conviction on April 30 based on ineffective assistance of counsel. The weakness of the evidence against Echavarria, in combination with the ineffective performance of his trial counsel, left Judge Lowy with a “compelling belief that justice may not have been done in this case.”

In his 26-page decision, Judge Lowy wrote that the performance of Echavarria’s trial attorney, Charles H. Robson,"fell measurably below that which might be expected from an ordinary fallible lawyer." He also cited the fact that Robson “had complaints pending against him from the Board of Bar Overseers” at the time of Echavarria’s trial – unbeknown to Echavarria. Several months after Echvarria's conviction, the Bar Counsel commenced proceedings against Robson, who was suspended from the Bar in 1997 for three years. Judge Lowy noted that Robson promised the jury in his opening statement that they would hear Echavarria testify that he wasn’t at the scene of the murder and knew nothing about the crime. Over the course of the trial, however, Robson never called his client as a witness. “It is certainly conceivable,” wrote the judge, “that the jury's verdict may have been different were it not for Mr. Robson's error.”

From day one, Echavarria, the father of five children, maintained that he was in prison for a murder he had nothing to do with. No physical evidence connected him to the crime; he was convicted based solely on shaky identifications, including that of one eyewitness who, as Judge Lowy noted, "demonstrated a marked lack of mental acuity over the course of trial." The witness couldn't tell time, height, distance, or his own age, and gave a description of the shooter that "was inconsistent with Mr. Echavarria's physique," noted the judge. The witness also repeatedly described the shooter as Puerto Rican; Echavarria, like the witness, is originally from the Dominican Republic. Judge Lowy cited in his decision expert testimony presented at Echavarria's evidentiary hearing in December that "there are significant differences in sounds and in meanings of words between Dominican and Puerto Rican accents," and that "the perpetrators spoke enough words such that somebody familiar with the Puerto Rican accent would accurately have been able to distinguish whether their accents were Puerto Rican."

Echavarria is on a GPS monitor and cannot leave the state pending the Commonwealth's decision whether to retry or drop the case entirely.

The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism investigated Echavarria’s case over the course of 10 years, unearthing valuable evidence that led the judge to grant an evidentiary hearing last year. See a timeline of the case here.

angel-echavarria-first-cell-phone-call

Angel Echavarria leaves Essex County Superior Court in Salem, Mass., with his family following his release from prison May 18, 2015. He served 21 years of a life sentence before a judge overturned his conviction.

Posted May 19, 2015

Angel Echavarria freed after serving 21 years of life sentence

'When you're innocent, you keep your hope'


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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.


Angel Echavarria

Angel Echavarria, March 2011

Posted May 14, 2015

Bail hearing Monday for Angel Echavarria

Judge David A. Lowy overturned his murder conviction. Now will he walk free?


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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.

Verdict overturned

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.”

What's next

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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