- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - A Massachusetts man who has been granted a new trial after spending 21 years behind bars for a killing he says he did not commit may soon be free.

Angel Echavarria, 48, is scheduled to appear in court Monday for a hearing to determine whether he can be released from prison while prosecutors decide whether to retry the Lynn man for the 1994 shooting death of Daniel Rodriguez.

Echavarria originally was convicted of first-degree murder in Rodriguez’s death. Prosecutors say Rodriguez was killed by two intruders who broke into his apartment, a known drug den.

The state’s highest court turned down Echavarria’s request for a new trial in 1998 and, with his appeals exhausted, he turned to outside groups.

The New England Innocence Project, which at the time only took on cases involving DNA evidence, referred his case in 2005 to the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, said Joanna Nix, an assistant editor at the institute.

The institute spent a decade researching the case and said it found inconsistent witness testimony, ineffectual trial counsel and other problems. Meanwhile, Echavarria did not get to see his five children grow up and never saw his 21-year-old daughter until she attended one of his court hearings a year ago, the institute said.

The Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services assigned attorney Leslie O’Brien to represent Echavarria, and O’Brien filed a motion for a new trial in 2010, based largely on what the Brandeis institute uncovered.

Superior Court Judge David Lowy granted the motion April 30.

“I can’t say enough about them,” O’Brien said of the institute. “They have been instrumental.”

She declined to speculate on what might happen at Monday’s hearing. She said her client is “cautiously optimistic.”

The state’s case against Echavarria was based largely on the eyewitness testimony of the victim’s brother, who did not speak English, had problems explaining basic concepts such as time and distance, did not know the day of the week, what city he was in, was a habitual marijuana user and had been drinking the night of the slaying, according to the institute.

The eyewitness described the shooter as a 20-year-old, clean-shaven Puerto Rican man with a “stocky” or “chunky” build. Echavarria is Dominican, 5-foot-10 and, in 1994, weighed 135 pounds and had a full mustache.

Lowy based his decision partly on the ineffectiveness of Echavarria’s original trial lawyer, who did not cross examine the victim’s brother as thoroughly as he could have and did not give Echavarria, who’s always maintained his innocence, the chance to take the stand to testify in his own defense.

“The weakness of the Commonwealth’s case, along with the performance of Mr. Echavarria’s counsel which fell measurably below that which might be expected from an ordinary fallible lawyer, leaves the court with a compelling belief that justice may not have been done in this case,” Lowy ruled.

Prosecutors were given 30 days to file their response. Carrie Kimball-Monahan, a spokeswoman for the Essex district attorney’s office, said the office is reviewing the case to determine the likelihood of a successful second trial.

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