Update: Schuster Institute’s dogged work exonerates man of wrongful murder conviction
Despite being in prison for 21 years, Angel Echavarria maintained his innocence and never gave up hope.
June 15, 2015:
Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett announced 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."
Justice is often neither swift nor completely served.
For Angel Echavarria, who spent 21 years behind bars for a murder he has always said he did not commit, that may be doubly true. Now, thanks in large part to students and staff at Brandeis’ Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, freedom is within Echavarria’s reach.
On April 30, Essex County Superior Court Judge David A. Lowy granted Echavarria a new trial based on the ineffective assistance of his trial counsel. On May 18, the judge vacated Echavarria’s conviction and released him on an ankle bracelet while prosecutors decide whether to appeal the decision or retry the case. For the first time in 21 years, Echavarria walked out of the Salem courthouse unshackled, where he was met by a large bank of television cameras and reporters, as well as a cheering crowd of family members, a dozen Brandeis students, Schuster Institute staff and other supporters who had worked on his case.
Echavarria was arrested in 1994 and later sentenced to life in prison for allegedly murdering a drug dealer in Lynn, Massachusetts. The circumstances of both Echavarria’s arrest and conviction were suspect. The victim’s brother, who claimed to have been at the scene of the crime, identified someone else’s photograph on the night of the shooting as looking like the murderer. Police never investigated this man.
Ten days after the shooting, the victim’s brother told police that Echavarria was the real culprit, after seeing him at a barbershop in Lynn. Echavarria didn’t fit the description given by the brother on the night of the shooting: Puerto Rican, 20 years old, and clean-shaven 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. But police arrested him anyway, and in 1996 he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
This was one of many key points Echavarria’s attorney did not effectively pursue. Judge Lowy’s ruling hinged on the poor handling of the case by trial attorney Charles H. Robson. “The fact that Mr. Robson was paid only $2,500.00 to represent Mr. Echavarria…and was later suspended from the practice of law for reasons including neglect of clients' cases, only tends to strengthen the defendant's argument,” wrote the judge. He noted that Robson’s performance “fell measurably below that which might be expected from an ordinary fallible lawyer.”
“This Court is left with uncertainty that the Defendant’s guilt has been fairly adjudicated,” concluded the judge.
It wasn’t until 10 years into Echavarria’s sentence that Florence Graves, the founding director of the Schuster Institute, came across his case.
“After we studied the trial transcripts, appeals and all the case materials we could find, we could not understand why Angel had been convicted,” Graves says. “There was no physical evidence against him, and the evidence presented against him seemed deeply flawed.”
Graves created the Justice Brandeis Law Project within the Institute to examine cases of likely wrongful convictions as well as systemic issues within the criminal justice system that can result in wrongful convictions.
A team of investigators and Brandeis student researchers began to pore over Echavarria’s case file and track down documents, witnesses and legal experts on wrongful convictions. Ultimately, the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services assigned attorney Leslie O’Brien to Echavarria’s case. O’Brien submitted a motion for a new trial five years ago using much of the Law Project’s evidence; this past December, an evidentiary hearing was held regarding that motion.
Joanna Nix ’14, who worked on another case within the Justice Brandeis Law Project for three years as an undergraduate, now manages student researchers who work on Echavarria’s case. During the past ten years, dozens of students have worked on his case as paid student research assistants at the Schuster Institute.
“After years of sifting through court records and transcripts, and hunting down witnesses, we have learned a tremendous amount about Angel’s case,” Nix says. “It’s an impressive thing that students do, spending time and energy doing very detailed research—the kind of research that doesn’t have an immediate payoff. It’s difficult work, but it’s worth it at times like these.”
Prosecutors have until May 30 to appeal the judge’s decision to vacate Echavarria’s conviction and allow a new trial, and must decide by June 16 whether they’ll retry him. Pending their decision, Echavarria is wearing a GPS-tracking ankle bracelet and must stay in Massachusetts.
Echavarria is hoping prosecutors will move swiftly and that he’ll be able to move forward with his life.
He has expressed his deep thanks to the Schuster Institute team. “I believed in them, because I knew that they’re very intelligent,” says Echavarria. “I never gave up. I put my trust in them, because I knew they were doing a good job.”
Lindsay Markel ’08, who worked on Echavarria’s case as Schuster Institute assistant director, was in the courtroom when the murder conviction was vacated. She was part of a crowd that cheered as Echavarria was unshackled; was at the press conference when he thanked his team and hugged his daughter, the youngest of his five children; and she attended the celebration where he ate lobster—his first meal as a free man.
Markel graduated May 15 from the University of California Berkeley School of Law and, inspired by Echavarria’s case, is set to become a public defender in New Orleans. She’s hopeful that she’ll be able to prevent clients from getting the same treatment as her friend.
“It’s incredible,” Markel says. “This was a long time coming, and though it’s not necessarily justice because nothing will give him those 21 years back, I’m glad the system recognizes it made a grave mistake. And I’m absolutely overjoyed that Angel does have a chance now to enjoy time with his family and get his life back.”