When Dr. Fern Selesnick first heard that Angel Echavarría served 21 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, she couldn’t believe it had really happened. But when the Marblehead dentist looked at his teeth, she was shocked. “It was quite drastic compared to my day to day routine,” she explained. On occasion, Selesnick has seen badly decayed teeth in patients who were previously drug abusers, but they did not compare to Echavarría who, after two decades of prison dental care, was left with gum disease, infection and only three healthy teeth.
Dental care in prison is limited. “In jail they don’t really do much,” said Echavarría. “They just pull it because it’s easier for them. They don’t want to spend a lot of money.” Echavarría’s decayed, infected teeth made him extremely uncomfortable and there was a lot of infection in his mouth, according to Selesnick, so he needed any teeth that were decayed or broken to be removed, which left him with three teeth remaining. “My primary concern was his pain and his infection,” said Selesnick.
It took a bit of time for Echavarría to become comfortable, since he was both in a lot of pain and embarrassed by the aesthetics of his teeth. Selesnick recalled that he even held his hand over his mouth when he spoke to her. “He was timid, he was appreciative, and he was nervous,” she said. In her mind, everything that was easy and routine for Selesnick was new to Echavarría. “You could tell he did not have a lot of dental work done in his life,” said Selesnick.
When she first heard Echavarría’s story, Selesnick was surprised that anyone could be in prison for such a lengthy amount of time for a crime they didn’t commit. “I didn’t think those things happened unless they were in the movies or on television,” she said. That’s why Selesnick didn’t hesitate when asked to work on his teeth for no charge.
“I’m a quiet guy, a very good person, anybody who knows me would tell you I’m not a trouble maker and I’ve been like that all my life,” said Echavarría. He maintained his claim to innocence through the entirety of those 21 years, refusing to even consider a plea deal prosecutors originally offered, which would have allowed him to be paroled more than a decade ago. “It was terrible when they put me in jail, crazy,” said Echavarría.
Echavarría connected with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University and Director Florence Graves, an investigative journalist, in 2015. Through a series of networks with Schuster Institute, Swampscott resident Mary McCarriston found local dentists who donated extensive dental work to Echavarría after his release. “She’s a wonderful person,” said Echavarría, “She’s the one who brought me to the dentist and explained that I needed it pro-bono.” Selesnick, along with Drs. Simon Bernstein and Jeff Li of Perico in Swampscott, coordinated to provide Echavarría’s dental care at no charge.
Selesnick took photos, measurements, and molds of Echavarría’s mouth, knowing there would eventually need to be some kind of denture for him to insert and remove at the beginning and end of each day. She reached out to Bernstein and Li of Perico to help with the project, forwarding them the article that was in The Boston Globe telling Echavarría’s story.
“I said, ‘I need you guys to help me out with this and I want to do it pro-bono, and you guys need to pitch in,’” said Selesnick. “I didn’t really give them much of an option,” she added. Selesnick originally planned to make removable dentures, but the dentists at Perico had something else in mind. They decided to remove the teeth and let them heal before putting implants in, called a hybrid denture, in which the denture is screwed into the implant so it isn’t removable.
“When he feels the roof of his mouth he will feel his own pallet versus feeling a piece of plastic, which to me it’s devastating for people to have a denture in this day and age,” said Selesnick. Not many dentists would normally have the time or the finances to perform this level of work pro-bono, according to Selesnick, and repairing his teeth took a little over a year from start to finish.
“This wasn’t done for any recognition, it was really done because after I heard his story I felt like he needed this and then some,” said Selesnick. Now, Echavarría is making up time with his family as a free man, recently married his high school girlfriend he reconnected with after his release, and has a full smile. Echavarría knew that the dental work was expensive, and expressed his appreciation for the dentists. “I’m very grateful and thankful that I found someone like that with a very good heart. I really appreciate everything they did for me,” said Echavarría.