Metro

Yvonne Abraham

After 21 years, a relentless quest for justice may pay off

Who deserves justice?

Is it just for the saints among us, those who live above reproach, and have good attorneys? What about the sinners, especially those who don’t know enough about the system to protect themselves?

Half his life ago, Angel Echavarria was in that second group. The Dominican immigrant was living in Lynn and involved in the drug trade. On a snowy January night in 1994, a drug dealer was murdered in a crowded Lynn apartment. Nine days later, after the victim’s brother claimed to recognize them, Echavarria and a friend were charged with the murder. Echavarria, now 48, swore he had never laid eyes on the victim or his brother before, let alone been to the apartment. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. He refused a plea deal, certain the truth would protect him.

Advertisement

It didn’t. A jury convicted him.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

It took more than a decade for Echavarria to get somebody to take up his case. Finally, it landed at the Justice Brandeis Law Project at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.

“When we read the transcripts of the trial and all the case material, we were stunned that he had been convicted,” said Florence Graves, who directs the institute and led the team of journalists and student investigators who scoured the files. She shared it with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which joined the effort to get a new trial.

If justice is slow, justice after a conviction is glacial. On April 30, almost a decade after the Institute went to work for Echavarria, an Essex County Superior Court judge threw out his conviction. After a bail hearing in Salem on Monday afternoon, he might finally walk free, after 21 years in prison.

“He always had an inner faith that he would be freed one day,” Graves said.

Advertisement

But to know Echavarria’s story is to wonder how faith that blind is even possible.

Angel Echavarria in 2011.

The murder of Daniel Rodriguez was like an execution. He and his brother Isidoro returned to Isidoro’s Lynn apartment on the night of January 7, 1994, to find two armed men holding a half-dozen of Daniel’s drug customers captive. One of the men tied up Isidoro with a phone cord and threw him down on the floor in a bedroom. When it was over, Daniel lay dead in the bathroom, shot twice in the head.

In the days after the killing, Isidoro tentatively identified a man named Mariano Bonifacio as one of the attackers, picking two different pictures of him from photo arrays. Investigators knew Bonifacio: Just two months earlier, he had shot a different dealer in the same neighborhood. But police made the mind-boggling decision not to track him down “in any way,” according to their own testimony.

Nor did prosecutors tell Echavarria’s lawyers about the possibility of another suspect, though the defense lawyer asked. It’s unclear, incredibly enough, whether police ever bothered to tell the DA about Bonifacio.

Eight days after the murder, Isidoro spotted Angel Echavarria and a friend in Kuky’s barber shop and decided they were the men who killed his brother — even though Echavarria did not fit the description Isidoro gave of the man who tied him up that night. He shook Echavarria’s hand and asked his name, and Echavarria readily gave it, thinking Isidoro strange but harmless.

Advertisement

This time, police did something. Echavarria and his friend were arrested.

‘He always had an inner faith that he would be freed one day.’

Florence Graves, director of the Brandeis Law Project at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism 

On the stand, Isidoro revealed himself as a man of limited capabilities: He did not know his own date of birth. He could not read a digital clock. He had only a loose grasp on spatial relations. Yet almost the entire case hung on his words.

A year after the murder, a second witness identified Echavarria as one of the attackers, but here, too, the identification was flawed. He took a minute or two to select Echavarria’s shot from a police array — way too long, and even then he said he couldn’t swear to it. He was shown the pictures by a detective involved in the case, using a technique that has since been found to unduly influence outcomes.

A good attorney might have exposed the massive holes in the case against his client. But, in yet another lousy break, Angel Echavarria did not have a good attorney. He had Charles Robson, who took his case for the measly $2,500 Echavarria’s loved ones scraped together.

They got what they paid for. Echavarria didn’t know this back then, but while he was representing him, Robson was facing a slew of disciplinary actions from the Board of Bar Overseers for, among other things, neglecting clients’ cases. Shortly after the trial, Robson was suspended from the bar.

A man who came to the phone when I called Robson’s home asking for him on Friday said he’d have him call me back.

He never did. What a surprise.

Where to begin with his screw-ups on Echavarria’s case? He failed to call alibi witnesses, even though they were sitting in the courtroom. And he told the jury with great fanfare in opening statements that Echavarria would testify in his own defense — that he would say he never knew the victim, had never been to his apartment, and was at home at the time of the murders. Then he failed to call him to the stand. It’s possible Robson was worried about how Echavarria would hold up in cross-examination, given his criminal past. But Robson knew all of the pitfalls before the trial. Only an incompetent attorney would promise his client’s testimony, then renege on it, leaving the jury to conclude that those grand opening claims of innocence were untrue.

After a deeply flawed investigation, and a deeply flawed trial, the jury convicted Echavarria and his co-defendant of first-degree murder. Echavarria most likely was sent to prison for the rest of his life because of those two questionable witness identifications.

Now, blessedly, Essex Superior Court Judge David A. Lowy has granted a new trial. In his decision, he expressed “deep personal concerns regarding factual innocence.” But he made a point of basing his judgment on Robson’s inadequacies as a defense attorney.

“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,” Lowy wrote.

Prosecutors have until May 30 to decide whether to appeal Lowy’s decision. They may also seek a retrial.

“We are evaluating all of our options,” said Carrie Kimball Monahan, spokeswoman for Essex DA Jonathan Blodgett. “We are obviously not going to drag this out. The case is undergoing a prompt review.”

Prosecuting Echavarria a second time would be mighty challenging, given all we know about his case now.

Then again, it should have been a much harder case to make in the first place. Like so many who enter the criminal justice system, Echavarria caught a series of incredibly lousy breaks: from police officers apparently unwilling to follow up on a clear lead, to dodgy eyewitness identifications, to his disastrous choice of counsel.

If Echavarria hadn’t spent years trying to convince people his story was true, if Graves and others at the Institute hadn’t put thousands of hours into his cause, if his new attorneys hadn’t decided they could make a case, he might have died in prison.

He is not, as an admitted drug dealer, the sort of person to engender sympathy; no one involved in this dirty business is. A lot of people might think these characters deserve each other, and what befell them.

But we should care what happens to men like Angel Echavarria. A system that denies the full measure of justice to him can deny it to you and me.

The integrity of that system hangs on consistency — on its capacity for fairness, not just to the saints among us, but to the Angels, too.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.