Justice through journalism
The Schuster Institute exonerated Angel Echavarria, after a wrongful conviction case and 21 years in prison
Many would argue that the world of journalism has drastically changed course, leaving traditional avenues of reporting and investigaton in the dust. With its nose to the grindstone, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism here at Brandeis University would beg to differ.
Combining the long-lost tradition of hard-hitting, investigative journalism with a legal approach to issues such as human rights, the abuse of government and corporate power, gender issues, environmental issues and wrongful convictions, the Schuster Institute blazes forward, not only garnering readers but impacting and changing local, national and international policies.
This past spring, the Institute achieved social justice through investigative journalism.
Echavarria and Graves
In 1996, Echavarria was wrongfully convicted of a murder in Lynn, Mass. Echavarria was given a life sentence without parole for a crime that he always maintained he did not commit.
This case is one of several that The Schuster Institute has been actively pursuing. The Institute, located on the second level of the Goldfarb Library, was established in 2004 by Founding Director Florence Graves. It serves as an independent reporting organization with the mission of investigating human rights and social justice issues.
Graves, a longtime investigative reporter in Washington D.C. who investigated sexual misconduct by members of Congress on Capitol Hill for the Washington Post, among other stories, launched the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism while working for the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis.
After hearing about The Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University, she was inspired to create a similar project using journalistic techniques to investigate potential wrongful conviction cases. “I was reading about some of their work and a light bulb went off. I cannot understand the extent to which such a large number of people were likely imprisoned and wrongfully convicted. I did not understand until I saw their work why [investigative] journalism in particular is needed or can be especially useful … in helping bring some of those cases forward,” Graves said in an interview with the Justice.
Taking the Case
In fact, the Echavarria case was recommended to the Institute before it was formally opened in 2005 by the New England Innocence Project (NEIP). NEIP is an independent public charity that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA evidence. Brandeis alumnus Neil D. Raphael ’98, who was affiliated with NEIP at the time, read in the Brandeis Reporter that the University was considering developing an innocence project. Rafael then contacted the Institute and asked if they would be interested in looking at some of the cases that NEIP was unable to take.
“At the time the New England Innocence Project did cases in which it was clear that there was DNA which had never been tested and that probably could be tested and determine innocence or guilt. Those are the DNA cases that eventually [became] exonerations [and] that made it clear that many other people, where there was no DNA left, might also have been wrongly convicted,” Graves explained. “In all of the DNA cases, exoneration cases, there were other significant things that had gone wrong in the case[s].”
Graves was inspired to look into these potential wrongful conviction cases because the NEIP had decided not to. This is when the NEIP sent Angel Echavarria’s case to the Schuster Institute, along with another possible wrongful conviction case that is currently being worked on. “It was ‘wow.’ If we ever wondered if this was a good thing to do, that was the sign, that was the message we needed,” Graves said.
Details of the Case
Echavarria had already been incarcerated for nearly 12 years at the time the Schuster Institute picked up his case. He was arrested in 1994 for a murder in Lynn, Mass. and convicted in 1996. His conviction was based on the eyewitness testimony of the victim’s brother, which was later found in the evidentiary hearing to be highly flawed.
According to the Schuster Institute’s website, the eyewitness described the assailant of the crime in Echavarria’s case as a 20-year-old, clean-shaven male with a Puerto Rican accent and a “stocky” or “chunky” build. Echavarria was a 27-year-old Dominican who weighed 135 pounds, was 5’10 and had a full mustache during the time of his arrest, which was only several days after the crime.
The Institute closely investigated the eye-witness testimony. “One of the first things we researched was finding linguistic experts and [we found that] people who are Puerto Rican and Dominican can tell the difference in accents. It’s like telling the difference between my Texas accent and a New England accent,” Graves strongly emphasized.
Anne Driscoll, the senior reporter for the Schuster Institute, worked on Echavarria’s case along with many others through the Brandeis Justice Law Project—one of several social justice projects at the Institute.
In an interview with the Justice, Driscoll described the eyewitness as having difficulties “with concepts such as time, height, weight, distance, what day of the week it was, what town he was in…”
“We realized early on that there was something very wrong with his case, the way that he had been convicted. We would read the case and say ‘how was he ever convicted?’ Then it was hard also [because] a jury had agreed that he was guilty based on what we could see was very, very flawed testimony,” Graves said.
In addition to flawed witness testimony, the Institute found numerous wrongdoings and inconsistencies throughout the process of Echavarria’s case. For instance, Judge David A. Lowy, Echavarria’s presiding judge, based his decision to permit a motion for a new trial on the ineffectiveness of Echavarria’s trial attorney, Charles H. Robson.
Early on in their investigation, the Institute found evidence that the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers contacted Robson regarding ethical complaints.
These complaints were ongoing even before Robson became Echavarria’s attorney and were not acted on until after Echavarria’s conviction.
A hallmark of the Institute is its history hiring paid student research assistants from the Brandeis community. In addition to student research assistants, the Institute maintains professional employees and volunteers with a wide range of expertise. The Institute strives to pair student research assistants with professionals in order to inspire and give them an opportunity to do in-depth real-world research.
“What I knew is that if students are involved in something that was this personal and yet had large implications policy-wise, I felt that they could be inspired, to doing more public interest work, (2) students who see up close the type of abuses of power in the criminal justice process that we see in these cases … would be able to see just how the system can sometimes purposely but sometimes not purposely create systems within organizations that are creating abuse without attempting to …. and how that affects individual lives … that they would be reminded of that, no matter what they’re doing in the future,” Graves highlighted.
Liz Eckley ’10 and Lindsay Markel ’08 are two alums who made true on Graves’ prediction and established close bonds with Echavarria through their work on his case.
Eckley worked for the Institute as a student research assistant throughout her junior and senior year. Eckley returned to the Institute from 2012 to 2014 to work as the Assistant Director for the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.
Eckley recalls her work on Echavarria’s case in an interview with the Justice.
“All of those things that happened are just not what the American justice system is about. Based on the evidence here [in Echavarria’s case] you could indict a freakin’ ham sandwich; like, this is absurd. How did this guy even get caught up in this?” Eckley questioned. “So, that’s really kind of what struck me when I was first involved with this case; that there was a miscarriage of justice, regardless of whether or not this guy was guilty; we know now that he wasn’t, but I just believe really strongly in the procedural safeguards that we have in place, and in this case, they were kind of thrown out the window.”
Although Markel did not work for the Institute as a student researcher, she did, however, return to the University upon graduating to work for the Institute.
Markel worked from 2008 to 2012 for the Institute as a researcher and eventually became Assistant Director. Recently receiving her Juris Doctorate from Berkley Law, Markel credits her work at the Institute for inspiring her to pursue a career as a public defender.
“I didn’t necessarily want to be a lawyer when I was an undergrad. It wasn’t until working on his case and the other cases really that put me in that direction—seeing these outrageous injustices that happen everyday was just like, ‘I need to be doing this for the rest of my life.’ So that led me in this direction for sure, and for a million reasons I’m happy that I worked on his [Echavarria’s] case, and that’s one of them,” Markel explained.
The monumental moment for Echavarria, his family and friends and the countless individuals who worked extensively on this case occurred on May 18, 2015 when Echavarria was released from prison, and then again on June 15 when the Essex County District Attorney announced that Angel Echavarria was exonerated of all charges.
Although Echavarria is now a free man, he still faces many hurdles resulting from his 21 years in prison. Since his imprisonment, his 5 children—of which, all of whom were under 6 years of age at the time of his conviction—have grown into young adults.
His mother died while he was in prison, and he just recently met his youngest child, his 22-year-old daughter, for the first time since he had been arrested.
Supporters of Echavarria’s have established donation sites and trending hashtags like #TeamAngel to help him assimilate into a very different world.
“As of today, Angel has gotten absolutely nothing from the State of Massachusetts to compensate him for the injustice that he suffered. So he is going to be submitting an application for compensation for his 21 years of wrongful incarceration … The problem is that it could take up to a year, so in the meantime we’re trying to raise emergency funds for the one year period that it might take to get that compensation,” Markel said.
Although she is about to embark on her own career as a public defender in New Orleans, Markel still remains close to Echavarria.
“I’ve been trying to get the fundraising page out there … Something that’s really cool is that a bunch of my law school classmates pitched in and we got him a phone with international capabilities, so he has an iPhone—so it’s been awesome helping him get in touch with his family back in the Dominican [Republic], in New York and Pennsylvania.”
“You know, it’s hard, because he was out of society for 21 years. There are so many things that he doesn’t understand yet. He’s been doing an awesome job—he’s really positive and he’s not overly frustrated. He kind of slowly chips away at the obstacles in his way so he can re-enter life again, and the fundraising piece is just something that we’re trying to do to make that transition a little easier for him,” Markel said.
Graves also commented on the current hardships Echavarria faces and her close bond with him, as well as on his strong and positive spirit.
“He’s relieved, but I will say it is very very difficult for someone to rebuild their life after having been in prison that long. He would stay in his own cell because he didn’t want to be around all of those criminals. You know, it’s a violent place, prison, so he spent most of his time reading and watching TV and reading the bible and playing things like Checkers and Scrabble. One time he called me and said, ‘ask me the names of all of the capitals of all of the states,’ and I started throwing out all of these states that I was sure he wouldn’t know, and he did! Part of his time he was studying geography and memorizing them. Every Sunday night. I would always make sure I was home Sunday night. We couldn’t call him—he had to call us,” Graves recalls laughing.