Making sense of redacted police reports. Drafting a Freedom of Information Act request. Dressing properly for a prison visit to avoid a run to T.J. Maxx for a change of clothes that meet the prison visitor dress code.
These are all things I learned over the three years I worked as a student research assistant and then as Assistant Editor at Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, managing student research for our Justice Brandeis Law Project (JBLP). The JBLP, among other projects, investigates cases of likely wrongful conviction using investigative journalism methods. We pore over court and police records obtained via public records requests, track down witnesses who never testified at trial, and try to unearth as much of the truth as we can.
On May 18, one of our cases made remarkable headway. Angel Echavarria was released on a GPS bracelet after spending 21 years behind bars for a murder he has always said he knows nothing about. After his June 16 hearing, if the prosecution decides not to retry him, he will once again live as a free man.
Angel is one of the unluckiest and luckiest men on earth.
Unlucky because, on January 16, 1994, he happened to get his hair cut at the same time and in the same barbershop as Isidoro Rodriguez, the brother of a murder victim in Lynn, Mass. Isidoro told police later that day that Angel was one of his brother’s assailants; one day later, Angel was arrested. Unlucky because, two years later, he was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Unlucky because he hired a lawyer who was himself under investigation by the Board of Bar Overseers at the time of Angel’s trial, and was later suspended from the Bar after Angel was convicted. Unlucky because he was poor, spoke almost no English at the time, and thought that being factually innocent was enough to keep anyone in the U.S. out of prison.
But Angel is also extraordinarily lucky because, after languishing behind bars for more than a decade, the New England Innocence Project referred his case to JBLP, which had just been created and was looking to take on cases without DNA evidence. For the next 10 years, JBLP staff and students, led by Schuster Institute Founding Director Florence Graves, conducted deep-dive research that time and money constraints keep most lawyers from doing. JBLP’s investigation ultimately got Angel a new attorney and renewed hope to get back into court.
Angel is lucky because he is one of too few exceptions to the rule. Studies estimate that as many as five percent of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent, which amounts to tens of thousands of wrongfully convicted people at a given time — not to mention those who have died or finished serving their sentences. The National Registry of Exonerations estimates there have been 1,600 exonerations since 1989 — a tiny fraction of the wrongfully convicted population. Most wrongfully convicted people don’t get exonerated. Even fewer get the type of investigation Angel got from JBLP.
When you lay out the facts of his case — no physical evidence connected him to the crime, the main eyewitness couldn’t tell time or distance and gave police a description of the shooter that bore little resemblance to Angel, a second eyewitness was first interviewed more than a year after the crime — Angel’s conviction seems, at the very least, improper. Appellate Judge David A. Lowy wrote in his April 30 decision allowing Angel’s motion for a new trial that he was left “with a compelling belief that justice may not have been done in this case.”
And yet, Angel’s case proved extremely difficult to get off the ground in a court of law.
The DNA testing performed on wires that one of the witnesses testified Angel had used to tie him up revealed a mixture of profiles, none of which matched Angel’s. The prosecution then argued that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
After working on wrongful conviction cases for four years, I’ve come to terms with several unfortunate truths. I’ve realized that justice is not blind — and cannot be blind — because it is operated and populated by ordinary, fallible people. I’ve realized there is almost no safety net for those who fall victim to the justice system’s fallibility. I’ve realized that one has a far greater chance of being and staying unlucky than of being lucky.
This work calls for extremely deferred gratification, but boy was May 18 gratifying: watching Angel’s shackles being removed; seeing his face transform from profound shock to unabashed joy as he hugged applauding members of a packed courtroom; seeing him take his first unshackled steps out of that courthouse with his hands shooting high in the air as he made his way to his daughter, who was born six months before his arrest all those years ago.
Those moments make it worth it. If only they came as frequently as they should.