MARBLEHEAD — A lot has changed in the year or so since Angel Echavarria was finally freed after serving 21 years for a murder he always said he did not commit.
Echavarria, 50, recently married a woman he’d dated when they were both teenagers in New York. They now live in Florida, near a beach where he jogs to keep busy. He’s a grandfather now, the kids he never got to raise having children of their own. He saw his youngest daughter graduate from college. He has learned to smile more, replacing the blank look that helped him hide from trouble in prison with expressions that match his feelings.
“I am happy, thank God,” he said. “It started to feel like normal, being free.”
He was sitting in Mary McCarriston’s Marblehead living room on a recent afternoon, up from Florida for another dental appointment to help repair the mess prison made of his teeth. “They like to pull the teeth and that’s it,” he said of his care inside. McCarriston, part of the support network that formed after the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis took up his cause years ago, arranged for four dentists to donate their services.
Here is what hasn’t changed. He still has nightmares about being back in prison. He remains afraid to go out at night. He compulsively saves receipts, in case he needs to prove an alibi. He’s still desperate to work, to have his immigration status resolved so he doesn’t have to depend on others. He has filed for compensation from the state for his years of wrongful incarceration. He’s hoping the attorney general will settle soon, rather than force a trial.
“I would like a regular life,” he said. “With my family, my wife, doing the right things.”
And he’s still bothered that nobody, besides the judge who set him free, has acknowledged what happened to him.
“I’ve never been angry,” he said. “But I feel bad they never said, ‘Sorry, we made a mistake.’ ”
There were so many mistakes. Echavarria was convicted of murdering a drug dealer in Lynn on a snowy January night in 1994. An eyewitness identified another man in the killing — a man who had been arrested for shooting a drug dealer nearby a couple of months earlier — but investigators never pursued him. And so the witness, who had glaring credibility issues, settled instead on Echavarria as the killer after spotting him in a barbershop. To this dangerously bad police work was added breathtaking incompetence by his own attorney.
Echavarria deserves more than an apology for all of this. He deserves an explanation of exactly how those years were stolen from him. And he just might get it. In June, attorneys filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Lynn, its police department, and the state troopers who investigated his case. The suit accuses police of framing Echavarria, suppressing information on the other suspect, encouraging false identifications by witnesses, and withholding evidence from attorneys on both sides.
The State Police had no comment on the pending litigation, and the Lynn police did not return a call seeking comment.
The trial will highlight some revealing questions. Were police incompetent here, or hampered by tunnel vision? Or was there something more sinister going on — a disregard for the truth, even if it meant locking up an innocent man and leaving a killer at large? And if they conducted themselves this way in a murder case, how were they handling the hundreds of other crimes they investigated — burglaries, drug busts, assaults? How many other Angels landed in prison?
The best Echavarria can hope for here is monetary compensation.
“Rarely does this sort of suit have consequences for the officers involved,” said Echavarria’s current attorney, Steve Art, whose Chicago-based firm tries wrongful conviction cases. A disaster like this should be a chance for police departments to make changes and avoid future injustices. But Art says that’s rare, too.
An apology is probably too much to hope for here. But some answers would be good.
“I was supposed to be free a long time ago,” Echavarria said.