Echavarria, Graves shine the spotlight on an imperfect criminal justice system

Photo/Julian Cardillo '14

Top: Kendall Boninti, Emilie Perna, Florence Graves and Jeanette Amiano. Bottom: Angel Echavarria, Tyler Johnson and Emily Lyons

Angel Echavarria spent 21 years — nearly half his life — in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1996, but now he is spending some of his recently granted freedom telling people his story with hope that it will make a difference.
“I want people everywhere to know what was done to me,” Echavarria said to a packed Waltham High School auditorium on Friday, Oct. 2.
Echavarria and Florence Graves, the founding director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis, spoke to the student body about his case and the current state of the American criminal justice system. Echavarria was in prison for 11 years before Graves and a group of staff and students at the Schuster Institute picked up his case file and started a decade-long journey to set him free.
Echavarria’s exoneration has further motivated the Schuster Institute staff in its review of other questionable criminal cases. It is also part of the reason why Graves and Echavarria agreed to speak at Waltham High School.
“Most people don’t know that there are, according to some academics’ estimates, thousands of wrongfully convicted people in U.S. prisons,” Graves said. “But unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to take on as many as we’d like.”
Waltham High students listened to Echavarria and Graves, erupting in cheers at various times, such as when Echavarria first walked onstage and when Graves played a video of Essex County court officers removing his shackles and handcuffs.
Following Graves’ presentation on the legal, sociological and political issues hindering the criminal justice system, two Waltham High students led a question and answer panel centered on Echavarria’s own experience and Graves’ perspective on wrongful convictions.
Graves and Echavarria were invited to Waltham High by English teacher Jeanette Amiano as part of its “One School, One Story” project, which required every student to listen this summer to “Serial,” the critically-acclaimed podcast that focused on themes of justice, race and equality.
“A criticism of the ‘Serial’ podcast was that they started feeling like a story, even though they’re based on real life and serious issues,” said Emilie Perna, an English teacher at Waltham High School and co-chair of the “One-School, One-Story” program. “Seeing Angel here makes the students’ summer experience more real. It puts these issues back into non-fiction and reminds them that wrongful convictions happen more than we’d like to admit.”
Graves and Echavarria’s message seemed to register with the entire auditorium, especially Emily Lyons, one of the students who led the question and answer session following the talk.
“When I was reading about Angel’s case, I discovered I want to be a journalist and that I want to go into writing,” said Lyons, who is now interested in applying to Brandeis and working at the Schuster Institute. “I think people should do things that will positively affect others’ lives. I didn’t know much about investigative journalism before, but the Schuster Institute took the time and changed someone’s life.”

Categories: General, Humanities and Social Sciences, Research, Student Life

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