A cautious, joyful return after conviction reversed
LYNN — It's as if Angel Echavarria just fell to earth.
Everything is new: his clothes; his home; his phone; his friends; his five grown-up children, who were tiny when he went to prison half a lifetime ago, for a murder he always said he did not commit.
By the time a judge overturned his conviction in April, Echavarria had spent 21 years inside — every move circumscribed, almost every decision taken from him. Inside changes you. It erases you, too. You don't exist beyond those walls, except to the people who love you.
Now Echavarria, 48, faces the immense challenge of drawing himself back into society, of finding a way to be in the world. Some of it is relatively straightforward: a driver's license, a bank account, a job.
"I'll work with anything," he said, sitting in a booth at a seaside restaurant Monday afternoon. "I just want to . . . earn money. I can't depend on people all the time, you know?"
Some of it is more daunting. How to be a father when he missed five childhoods? How to make his own way after spending so long being utterly dependent? How to live with the crippling fear that another chance meeting with a stranger will hurtle him back into a nightmare?
"Going out in the nighttime, sometimes I'm scared," he said. "What if something happens again to me?"
It took a decade, and an army of investigators and attorneys, to reveal the deep flaws in the case that sent Echavarria to prison: unconscionable neglect by his own lawyer; mystifyingly incomplete work by detectives; glaring credibility issues surrounding the eyewitness who spotted Echavarria in a barbershop and swore that he was the man who shot a drug dealer on a snowy January night in 1994.
A judge released Echavarria three weeks ago. On Monday afternoon, prosecutors announced they would not retry him. The next morning, a courthouse worker in Salem handed Echavarria a pair of scissors so he could cut off his own ankle monitoring bracelet.
If only moving beyond his past was as easy as breaking that link.
The weeks since he was released have been packed with celebrations. The people at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, which first took up his case, have taken him out for seafood dinners, shopping expeditions, and bowling nights. Those investigators and their friends have shown him how to use FaceTime and emoticons (Echavarria, liberal with hearts and praying hands, chuckles at the thought that pagers were cutting edge when he went away). They have helped him get an ID and open his first bank account, and they are working on clarifying his immigration status. They have brought him along on their own errands, including a trip to the hair salon, because he didn't want to be alone.
His children and his extended family have been making trips from New York City to see him.
On Monday night, his sons Elvis, 25, and Elliott, 23, bowled with him in Peabody. Tall and skinny — just as their father was in his 20s — the young men cheated and laughed their way through the games, delighting Echavarria.
They spoke on the phone and exchanged letters with their father when he was in prison. He begged his family not to visit him.
"He said it would get him more depressed," said Elliott.
Echavarria knew he would see them again.
"I never gave up because I didn't do it," he said. "When you didn't do it, you feel confident you're going to get out one day."
Most of us would feel confident for a year or two, maybe. It's hard to imagine staying optimistic through one whole decade, then into a second. Other inmates were amazed he was doing life, Echavarria said, because he seemed too happy, too careful to stay out of trouble. He missed his kids' birthdays, and his mother's death, but he didn't succumb to bitterness.
"I believe in God," he said. "I will leave it to Him. I don't have hard feelings."
While he waited for somebody to take his case, Echavarria learned English, took computer courses, and earned his GED. He worked on himself, too, realizing he had been unfair to his wife, who had moved on.
"I wasn't bad before, but I think I'm a better person," he said. "More respectful."
And more afraid. Echavarria is living in transitional housing just 2 miles from the Lynn barbershop where he encountered the man who then accused him of murdering his brother. He is surrounded by reminders of those terrifying days when he first realized he was being held responsible for the death of a man he had never met.
He worships at a church called Dias Mejores — Better Days — and pores over the Psalms. He rarely goes out at night. Even when he's out with his kids, he is reluctant to take a stroll after dinner. He slept badly in prison. But he sleeps badly outside, too, worrying that something will go wrong, that what has been given to him will suddenly be taken away.
He seems as vulnerable as he is fortunate, utterly dependent on the huge network of people who have been so kind since the Schuster Institute took up his cause.
The months to come will bring reckonings.
Echavarria will have to learn to walk alone, and without fear. As the glow of reunion fades, he will have to find a way to be a father to the children he is only just getting to know. He must decide how to propel himself through the world, to define himself not by what he has endured, but by what he wants to become.
These are the kinds of challenges he longed for in prison, and he knows he is lucky to have them. But that doesn't make them any less difficult.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham