Prisons are filled with men who claim they are innocent.   Once in a while the stars seem to align and a lucky man is given the chance to prove it.

On Monday applause and cheers rang out on the 5th floor of the Essex County Superior Courthouse in Salem after Judge David Lowy told Angel Echavarria that he was a free man.   Forty-eight year old Echavarria has spent nearly half his life in prison for a crime that a preponderance of new evidence suggests he did not commit –the 1994 winter murder of a drug dealer, Daniel Rodriguez.  Two masked men shot Rodriguez in his own apartment in Lynn during a robbery.  One of the shooters was said to be Echavarria, who at the time was involved in the drug trade. 

Echavarria in an elevator heading downstairs with reporters said prison was “a terrible, terrible thing”.  Outside the courthouse –minus the shackles and handcuffs-- he moved warily toward a bank of microphones to express in Spanish-accented English what it means to be free.

“It mean a lot to me, because I been suffering a lot in there.  I never give up but when you’re innocent you keep your hope.”

Standing besides Echavarria was his daughter, Ishannis Lopez of New York, who met her father for the first time last year. She is 22 and saw her father as Echavarria began his 21st year behind bars.

“I just want to say that I’m grateful for everyone that took their time to help my father.  The time is perfect.”

Echavarria, seeming to be suspended somewhere between tears and a smile, said, “That’s my youngest daughter.  My baby girl.  She be there for me all the time.”

While he sat in prison, Echavarria’s five children became adults.  His mom died and the world changed all around him.   But he never wavered in his belief that he would one day be free.  

Echavarria thanked his daughter, the family who stood by him and his attorney, Leslie O’Brien,  with the Committee for Public Counsel Services.  But his greatest thanks went to the Schuster Center for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.

For the better part of a decade, reporters and students from Brandeishave probed Echavarria's case.

Full disclosure.  I am a senior fellow with the Schuster Center, but I have never worked on Echavarria's story.   Schuster’s Executive Director, Florence Graves, took up his 1996 conviction.

“To most of us who read all of the data. All of the trial transcripts, all of the records, it was a questionable conviction.”

Graves said a key discrepancy in the case involved the principal eyewitness—Isidoro Rodriquez, the brother of the victim—who described one of the shooters as a 20-year-old clean-shaven Puerto Rican male with a stocky build.  

“And it was clear just from reading the records that Angel did not match the description that was given by this eye witness the night of the murder.  In fact he said the murderers were Puerto Rican and Angel is Dominican. 

There was an expert in language and accents that was part of the evidentiary hearing for the new trial and the expert said that anyone who’s Dominican or Puerto Rican knows the difference.  It’s obvious if someone is either Puerto Rican or Dominican after hearing them talk for a while. “

Graves was assisted by a group of Brandeis undergraduates including David Altman, a senior. 

“We visited him in in prison, wrote letters and worked on his case.”

And how did Altman feel when he learned that the conviction had been vacated?

"It was amazing.  It almost seemed implausible after all this time.  Surreal.  I mean, it was tremendous. Hopefully, the road forward will be short and filled with all of the outcomes that we want.  But it was great.”

Prosecutors have until May 30 to appeal the decision by Judge Lowy to vacate the conviction and to free the former defendant.  A spokesperson for the Essex County DA’s office told WGBH that they are considering their options.  Meanwhile,  Angel Echavarria, wearing a court-imposed GPS ankle monitoring bracelet, a dark suit and a massive smile fumbled with a smart phone –calling his relatives in the Dominican Republic.  

The former disc jockey says that the new technology will be a challenge for him.  So will living expenses.   Under the circumstances in which Echavarria was released the state is not obliged to pay a dime for what many believe to have been an unjust 21 years cut out of his life.   Lindsay Markel  a lawyer and former Schuster Center investigator has set up a fund for Echavarria .  

“I and a couple of other former Schuster Institute staff members have set up a Go Fund page for him to help him get set up with housing, to get clothes, toiletries, bed sheets, towels, things like that that he has absolutely none of.  He has as to remain in the state and he will be staying somewhere where he doesn’t have any family and he will need all of these basic necessities.”

Asked what he would do now,  Echavvarria said:

“I’m going to eat some food.  I like lobster and shrimp.”   

Echavvarria and his family then piled into a waiting SUV and headed  toward a restaurant in Lynn.