First wrongly convicted, now wrongly delayed
When it comes to waiting, Angel Echavarria is an expert.
Spending 21 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit will do that.
But now that he’s finally free, the state — which owes him for every minute of those years — says he must wait yet longer for compensation.
Echavarria was convicted of murdering a drug dealer in Lynn on a snowy night in 1994. A witness initially identified another man in the killing, but investigators never pursued him. After spotting Echavarria in a barbershop in the days after the murder, the witness — who had serious credibility issues — decided Echavarria was in fact the killer. So police went after Echavarria instead. Echavarria and his family scraped together money to pay an attorney who turned out to be breathtakingly incompetent. Echavarria was convicted.
He was remarkably patient in prison, certain that the jury verdict would eventually be overturned. He prayed a lot. He never let anger overtake him.
Finally, in April of 2015, after attorneys and investigators at the Schuster Institute at Brandeis University took up his cause, a judge threw out Echavarria’s conviction.
There’s no getting those years back. In prison, Echavarria missed out on seeing his five children grow up. He begged his family not to visit him, because it was too painful. His mother died while he was locked up. He closed himself off and grew fearful. Even now, facing no charge of any kind, he keeps every receipt, in case he has to prove an alibi.
Since his release, Echavarria has seen his first grandchild born, and he has moved to Florida with his new wife, a paralegal whom he dated when they were teenagers.
In December, the attorney general agreed to compensate Echavarria for the years he lost with a $450,000 settlement. But now he has learned there isn’t enough money in the settlement fund to honor that commitment. He’s going to have to wait until the state can replenish the fund, and that will probably take months.
He shouldn’t have to wait another minute.
“It makes me sad, you know?” he said. “Look at what I go through, being inside so long, and we wait a year for [a settlement agreement] and then another setback, we gotta wait again.”
The amazing thing is, Echavarria’s quest for compensation has been pretty smooth sailing compared to the battles most wrongly convicted people must wage in Massachusetts. Our eligibility standards are quite strict compared to those of other states. Sometimes, getting restitution from the state requires a lengthy court battle akin to a retrial. Even for those who successfully run that gantlet — or, as in Echavarria’s case, with whom the AG agrees to settle outside the courtroom — the state award is capped at $500,000.
It’s an outrage and a mess. State Senator Pat Jehlen, the Somerville Democrat who helped bring wrongful conviction compensation to Massachusetts 12 years ago, has just introduced legislation to make it easier for men and women like Echavarria to get fair restitution for what the state took from them. Among other things, her bill would: loosen the standards those wrongly convicted must meet to win an award; speed up the process by which compensation decisions and payments are made; give those likely to prevail some money to live on in the meantime; and eliminate the cap on compensation awards.
Jehlen will also urge, via the supplemental budget likely to be settled in the next couple of months, that the state immediately replenish the fund from which Echavarria will be paid. She recognizes that there are many demands on public money, especially now: “We don’t have enough revenue for even our constitutional obligations, let alone our moral ones,” she said.
But we can’t shirk our duty to men like Angel Echavarria just because times are tight.
“We don’t say to ourselves, ‘We don’t have enough money to put this guy in prison for 20 years,’ and we spent much more on that,” she said. “It’s our debt.”
And it’s way past due.