Exoneration of Massachusetts Man Highlights Need for Public Advocacy

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June 15, 2015; Boston.com

For almost a month, Angel Echavarria has been walking free—albeit with an ankle monitor tying him to the crime he says he never committed. Now that ankle monitor is coming off, along with the weight of nearly two decades of incarceration for a wrongful conviction.

Echavarria’s first-degree murder conviction for the 1994 shooting death of Daniel Rodriguez in Lynn, Massachusetts, was overturned at the end of April after the judge allowed Echavarria’s motion for a new trial on the grounds of ineffective counsel. The Essex County District Attorney had the option of pursuing a new trial, but instead choose to drop the charges.

As in so many other wrongful conviction cases, the Essex County prosecutor’s office may be paying for the past mistakes of their predecessor. Despite the fact that no physical evidence linked him to the murder, Echavarria was sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment. The lawyer who represented Echavarria was disbarred a year after the murder conviction.

Echavarria’s motion for a new trial sat on the judge’s bench for years before it was even considered. Without an invested advocacy effort, Echavarria would not be free today. Part of the success of Echavarria’s exoneration is due to the Schuster Institute of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit organization that has been investigating and advocating for Echavarria for nearly 10 years.

The battle does not end after exoneration, though. As NPQ has previously reported numerous times, there must be strong advocacy and support systems for ex-convicts following their release, and it must extend beyond the nonprofit sector into society. After being locked out of society, ex-felons are then locked out of jobs opportunities upon their release. Massachusetts is one of several “Ban the Box” states—the box here referring to the area in a job application where an applicant must disclose their criminal history. While Massachusetts, Georgia, Colorado, Connecticut, New Jersey, and a slew of other states prohibit employers from considering a criminal history in hiring decisions, other states have no such guarantee, but it is to their detriment.

Hawaii became the original “Ban the Box” state in 1998, and the impact of the policy on crime in the state has been remarkable. A study from last year examining the impact of the policy in Hawaii found that “a criminal defendant prosecuted in Honolulu for a felony crime was 57 percent less likely to have a prior criminal conviction after the implementation of Hawaii’s ban the box law.” The policy helped curb repeat offenses in the state by helping diminish the negative stigma of being an ex-convict. When considering $179 billion federal and state funds go toward crime control, it would behoove states to consider control methods that humanize, rather than stigmatize the ex-convict.

Gainful employment and a chance to be an active, respected member of society again are crucial parts of the rehabilitation process following a prison release. As the study indicates, the marginalization of ex-convicts eventually leads them to band together, increasing their propensity toward more criminal activity. The absence of income in combination with an onslaught of societal responsibilities, including to their families, may also lead them to try to obtain funds illegally.

Being responsive to the unique needs of ex-convicts can be a universal good for society, yet the stigma of being a felon still exists. So where does Echavarria go from here? Echavarria has family (he can now be the involved father to his five children he couldn’t be before), he has a huge community of supporters thanks to the Schuster Institute, and staff members and former affiliates of the project have created a fundraising page to help him transition back into society. Still, having been out of the workforce for 20 years, he is going to need continued support.

Exoneree or not, it’s time society begins the process of helping ex-convicts assimilate back into society and accept their debts have been paid.—Shafaq Hasan

Editor’s Note: The writer was previously employed by the Justice Brandeis Law Project at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism during her time at Brandeis University.