Commonwealth v. Echavarria, ESCR1994-02407

Decision Date30 April 2015
Docket NumberESCR1994-02407
PartiesCommonwealth v. Angel Echavarria No. 130218
CourtSuperior Court of Massachusetts

David A. Lowy, Justice of the Superior Court.

In January 1996, an Essex County jury convicted the defendant Angel Echavarria, of murder in the first degree in the shooting death of Daniel Rodriguez. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in State Prison, and the Supreme Judicial Court upheld his conviction on December 22, 1998. Commonwealth v. Echavarria , 428 Mass. 593, 703 N.E.2d 1137 (1998).

This matter is before the court on the defendant's motion for new trial, pursuant to Mass.R.Crim.P. 30(b). The defendant claims that the interests of justice require that he be granted a new trial, due to ineffective assistance of counsel, the prosecution's failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, and newly discovered DNA evidence and new research concerning the fallibility of certain eyewitness identification procedures. An evidentiary hearing on the matter was held on December 18 and 19, 2014, and March 6 2015. For the following reasons, the defendant's motion is allowed.


The following facts are gleaned from the trial record, as well as the evidentiary hearing on the defendant's motion for new trial, with further facts reserved for discussion below. The principal witness for the prosecution, Isidoro Rodriguez (" Isidoro"), testified that on the evening of January 7, 1994, he and his brother Daniel Rodriguez sought to enter the Lynn apartment where Isidoro lived at the time. They were confronted by two armed men who had gained access to the apartment, one of whom Isidoro later described as being taller and lighter skinned, and the other as shorter and darker skinned. The two men dragged Isidoro and Daniel into the apartment. The taller, lighter skinned man bound Isidoro's hands, brought him into a bedroom, ordered him to lie on the floor, and threw a shirt over his face. Shortly thereafter, Isidoro untied himself, and found his brother who had been bound hand and foot and shot twice in the head dead in the bathroom. The two armed men had already fled the apartment.

Police arrived on the scene, and interviewed Isidoro. John Garvin who at the time of the murder was assigned to investigate homicides as a supervising sergeant with the Essex County District Attorney's office, testified at trial that Isidoro provided the following description of the lighter-skinned perpetrator on the night of the murder: " Hispanic, maybe being Puerto Rican descent, approximately twenty years of age, five foot ten inches tall, with a stocky, chunky build. He had brown eyes and a medium complexion . . . no facial hair, short curly hair on the top of his head and shaved sides." Trial trans. 1/24/96 at 122. A flyer that was disseminated to local departments described the lighter-skinned individual as stocky or chunky, with a shaved-sides hair style.

Hours after the murder, at the police station, Isidoro took part in a photographic identification process. According to Mr. Garvin's testimony, he reviewed six to seven mugbooks with over two hundred photographs per book. He singled out one of the photographs as depicting a person whom he said looked like the lighter skinned perpetrator. Officer Raymond Guillermo, a Spanish-speaking officer assigned to the anti-crime unit, served as an interpreter for Isidoro during the photo identification process.

At the probable cause hearing, regarding Isidoro's identification of the photograph, Isidoro's testimony was as follows:

[Isidoro]: I told Ramon [Guillermo] that one of them looked like maybe and he said " Are you sure" ? And I said Ramon I am too nervous and Ramon said, " But you have to know, what kind of people, what kind of person" and I said " No I don't know."
. . .
[Defense]: Now with regard to the one photograph that you thought looked like somebody, did you think that he looked like the person that had been in your apartment?
[Isidoro]: Yes that's right.
. . .
[Isidoro]: I kept looking at him, I talked to Ramon, I explained to Ramon " Can't tell, Ramon whether it is this or not" but he said, " You know this is not a joke you have to know how these things are."
. . .
[Isidoro]: . . . I told Ramon, I said I'm scared, I'm nervous (inaudible) a few hours of the day so I did not affirm in any way that it was that person, you know that I was certain that it was that person.

PCH trans. at 63-66.

At trial, the jury heard the following testimony regarding Isidoro's identification of the photograph:

[Prosecutor]: What photo did you see?
[Isidoro]: A person that looked--looked alike.
[Prosecutor]: Did you say anything to the police?
[Isidoro]: Yes.
[Prosecutor]: What did you tell them of that picture?
[Isidoro]: I told them that the person looked alike.
[Prosecutor]: Did you pick out that picture?
[Isidoro]: They took it out. I picked it. I told them that yes, that it looked alike.
[Prosecutor]: Did you tell them that was one of the men?
[Isidoro]: No. No, I never said that. I said that it looked like that person.

Trial trans. 1/22/96 at 86-87.

Mr. Garvin and Officer Guillermo gave the following trial testimony:

[Mr. Garvin]: [Isidoro] stated through Officer Guillermo--that Mr. Bonafacio--the photograph of Mr. Bonafacio looked like one of the subjects in his house that night. Then he stated that it wasn't the subject, but it was--
[Prosecutor]: Sorry. I didn't hear.
[Mr. Garvin]: He stated it wasn't the subject that was there, but he was similar to the person. He had some of the same features.

Trial trans. 1/24/96 at 129-30.

[Prosecutor]: What did he say about that photo?
[Officer Guillermo]: That he pointed to a photo.
[Prosecutor]: What did he say?
[Officer Guillermo]: " That looks like him, but it's not him."
[Prosecutor]: Sorry. What did he say?
[Officer Guillermo]: He said, " That looks like him, but it's not him."

Trial trans. 1/25/96 at 30-31.

Several days after Isidoro identified the photograph, the officers showed him another photo array including a more recent photograph of the same man, which Isidoro again singled out as looking like the lighter-skinned perpetrator. The photograph actually depicted a man named Mariano Bonafacio. According to a police report authored by then-Lieutenant J. Michael Roach, which was entered in evidence at the evidentiary hearing, victim Victor Batista previously identified Mr. Bonafacio from a photo array as the person who had shot Batista in the chest on November 11, 1993, less than two months before the murder in this case and approximately half a mile away from where Daniel Rodriguez was murdered. Lynn police obtained a search warrant for a car Mr. Bonafacio was seen driving days after that shooting, and a search of the car revealed a bag of cocaine and a pager.

The court credits the testimony of Mr. Echavarria's attorney, Charles Robson, that he never saw the Bonafacio report. The Court also credits the testimony of Mr. Garvin at the evidentiary hearing that he was unclear as to the scope of any investigation that was done concerning Mr. Bonafacio, or if a report was generated and turned over to the District Attorney's office concerning Mr. Bonafacio's alleged involvement in the shooting of Mr. Batista.

Several days after singling out the photograph of Mr. Bonafacio at the police station, Isidoro saw Mr. Echavarria and another man--Mr. Echavarria's co-defendant at trial--in a Lynn barbershop. Isidoro spoke to the defendant, telling him he looked like someone Isidoro knew from Puerto Rico, and asking him his name. Mr. Echavarria gave his real name. Later that day, Isidoro saw the same two men in a nearby restaurant. Believing them to be the two armed men from the night of the murder, Isidoro went to the Lynn police station. Ultimately, Mr. Echavarria and his friend were arrested.

Mr. Echavarria, at the time of his arrest, was five feet ten inches tall and weighed 135 pounds. His booking sheet, which was admitted in evidence at the evidentiary hearing on the motion for new trial, indicates that Mr. Echavarria had a goatee. His booking photograph and the photograph of Mr. Bonafacio that Isidoro identified the night of the murder clearly depict two different people. Mr. Echavarria was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was twenty-six years old. Isidoro testified at trial that the lighter-skinned man spoke " Puerto Rican Spanish, " based on his pronunciation of the word " cabron." Trial trans. 1/22/96 at 72.

The Court credits the testimony of Dr. Michael O'Laughlin that based upon Isidoro's testimony at trial, the perpetrators spoke enough words such that somebody familiar with the Puerto Rican accent would accurately have been able to distinguish whether their accents were Puerto Rican. The Puerto Rican accent is different from the Dominican accent, and is one of the most distinctive accents in the Spanish-speaking world. It is distinctive in intonation and it has been influenced more by English than any other Spanish accent. There are significant differences in sounds and in meanings of words between Dominican and Puerto Rican accents.

About one year after Daniel Rodriguez was murdered, police interviewed a second eyewitness, Gary Sevinor, who was at the time serving a state prison sentence. According to Sevinor's trial testimony, he was present at the apartment the night of the murder for the purpose of buying cocaine; he provided money to an individual who left the apartment to get the drugs, when shortly thereafter there was a knock on the door. Mr. Sevinor opened the door, and the individual to whom he had given the money returned with two other people, one of...

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