SALEM — Angel Echavarria walked into an Essex Superior courtroom Monday afternoon clutching a thick stack of documents and a Bible.
Dressed in a dark suit, his ankles and wrists shackled, he shuffled over to a seat beside his attorney, Leslie O’Brien.
He peered over his shoulder at the packed room, smiled at his cousins, and waved at his daughter — the people who backed him during his two-decade-long quest for freedom after being convicted of a 1994 murder he insists he did not commit.
“He’s waiting for the day to come, and he said he’ll make up all of the years,” said Echavarria’s 22-year-old daughter, Ishannis Lopez, who was just a baby when her father was sent to prison. “He said ‘to keep on holding on there. It’s almost coming to an end.’ ”
And so it was that two hours later, cheers erupted inside the fifth-floor courtroom. A court officer removed the handcuffs after a judge ordered the 48-year-old Echavarria released on GPS monitoring after finding flaws last month in the prosecution’s case against him.
Echavarria cried as he embraced his family, who had traveled from New York.
“They finally made justice,” he said as he walked to an elevator. “I feel good. I have been through a lot in jail. I’m innocent. I never gave up.”
“All of my family and friends they know, too. That’s why they’ve got my back,” Echavarria said, adding that the first thing he wants to do is “chill” with his “family and friends,” and eat lobster and shrimp.
Under the terms of his release, Echavarria cannot leave the state and cannot obtain a passport.
The Essex district attorney’s office is deciding whether to continue pressing the case or drop the charges.
“It’s not completely over,” said O’Brien. “I’m very optimistic today that justice will be done and this nightmare will come to an end for Angel.”
The district attorney has until May 30 to appeal the judge’s decision to vacate Echavarria’s sentence and will decide whether to pursue a retrial by June 16.
Essex Superior Court Judge David Lowy ruled in April that the prosecution’s murder case was flawed and that Echavarria did not have adequate representation two decades ago.
“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,” Lowy wrote in a motion granting Echavarria’s request for a new trial.
On the evening of Jan. 7, 1994, Isidoro Rodriguez and his brother Daniel were met by two armed men as they entered their apartment in Lynn. The armed men dragged the brothers into the apartment, court records show. One of the men tied Isidoro Rodriguez’s hands, took him into the bedroom, ordered him to lie on the floor, and threw a shirt over his face.
The apartment was known for drug activity. The armed men were holding half a dozen of Daniel Rodriguez’s drug customers. Isidoro freed himself and found his brother with his hands and feet tied, according to court documents. He had been fatally shot twice in the head.
Nine days later, Echavarria, who had been living in Lynn and was reportedly part of the drug gang, was charged with murder, along with a friend.
But Echavarria said he had never seen the victim or his brother before, and had not gone to their apartment. No physical evidence linked Echavarria to the crime.
Two years later, a jury convicted Echavarria of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and related offenses.
Echavarria’s trial lawyer, Charles H. Robson, had several complaints pending against him from the Supreme Judicial Court’s Board of Bar Overseers. A year after Echavarria was convicted, Robson was suspended from the bar for three years based on a pattern of professional misconduct.
Lowy found that Robson failed to adequately cross-examine Isidoro Rodriguez, the eyewitness, who did not know his own birth date, could not read a digital clock, and struggled with spatial relations. During opening statements, Robson told the jury his client would testify in his own defense. But he never called Echavarria to the stand.
Echavarria became a free man with the help of the Justice Brandeis Law Project at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, which took up his case when no one else would.
His supporters have created a GoFundMe page and have raised $3,000 so far.
Before Echavarria was released Monday, another issue emerged, when federal immigration authorities contacted the court asking that Echavarria be detained.
Assistant District Attorney A.J. Camelio told the court the document from immigration authorities noted a “prior felony conviction” or felony charge. Camelio said the request could have been related to the current case or to a previous case in New Jersey that was dismissed.
Echavarria is a Dominican immigrant with a green card, his attorney said. Camelio said bail conditions set by the court satisfied federal authorities.
With that issue resolved, Echavarria, a father of five, stood outside the courthouse hugging and thanking his supporters, and taking calls from family members.
“I’m not a bad guy,” Echavarria told a crowd of reporters as he stood beside his daughter, one of his biggest supporters. “I’m a good human being. I’m not a troublemaker. I never hurt anybody.”