Sentenced As Juveniles, Those Serving Life Await Ruling

SHIRLEY, Mass. — Thirty-seven-year-old Joe Donovan has been in prison for almost 20 years.

“My whole adult life is in prison,” he said from a conference room at MCI Shirley.

When he was 17, Donovan was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of Yngve Raustein. Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing the constitutionality of juvenile sentences just like his.

Joe Donovan (Kathleen McNerney/WBUR)

Joe Donovan (Kathleen McNerney/WBUR)

“It makes me hopeful,” Donovan said. “I believe that they’re going to rule with some sort of middle ground. What they may say is if you did not participate in the murder, did not help with the murder, did not actually kill anyone, you shouldn’t be put in prison for the rest of your life without at least a chance for a hearing at some point in the future.”

Although he was at the scene of Raustein’s murder, Donovan was not the killer. That was 15-year-old Shon McHugh.

“They charged him as a juvenile. They charged me as an adult automatically in Massachusetts. They don’t even have a hearing. They have a hearing for him to see if he can be rehabilitated. They said that he can be rehabilitated,” Donovan explained. “Because I was 17, I don’t get that hearing. There’s no hearing to see if I can be rehabilitated.”

Donovan said he constantly re-lives that night in September of 1992 when, as he tells it, he was walking with McHugh and another teen on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, near MIT, where Raustein was a student. Donovan’s group walked by Raustein and a friend and the two groups got into a fight. Donovan punched Raustein and, as Raustein was on the ground, McHugh stabbed Raustein and the boys took off.

“Now, I’m not thinking he stabbed the kid back there, right, because you would think you would say that, right? Or I would have seen it. And I’m thinking he must of just stabbed somebody when I was gone. I’m like, what happened, right? He’s wiping the blood off the knife and he says, ‘I stabbed that kid.’ [I said] ‘Why’d you do that?’ He said he wanted to know what it was like to kill somebody or something to that effect,” Donovan recalled.

Donovan was arrested that night, three weeks after his 17th birthday. In exchange for leniency, the third defendant, Alfredo Velez, cut a deal and pleaded guilty. Donovan refused.

“Later on they had offered me deals or whatever, but they were always [to] plead guilty to a murder or something like that,” Donovan explained. “And I don’t think I did murder. I find that hard to plead guilty to something I didn’t do.”

Donovan was convicted under what’s known as the joint venture doctrine, which holds all suspects equally guilty when a felony is committed.

“It’s a very complicated form of law. It’s very strange and don’t really make much sense,” Donovan said. “As a child, I didn’t ever think that that would have anything to do with me. How I could be responsible for the bad acts of someone else? And we’re here now.”

Retired Judge Robert Barton is among those saying Donovan should be released — especially since McHugh was released in 2003. But even more surprising: Raustein’s family says Donovan has paid for his crime.

“One day I just decided that I should write them,” Donovan said. “And I made it known in the letter that I’m really not looking for this for myself. I’m just saying I just wanted them to know how bad I felt about the situation and how stupid I was. I didn’t realize I was walking around with dynamite on me. I didn’t realize Shon’s intent here or his volatile nature.

“They’re very gracious people. They end up accepting the letter and saying we forgive you and we support your release.”

But some believe that a life was lost, and he should serve out his life sentence in prison.

“I don’t want to seem that I’m trying to shirk responsibility, but I’d done the least in the crime and I got the most sentence,” Donovan said. “Regardless of that, I don’t know if you can really consider a juvenile to be totally responsible for everything that happens, all consequences of an event.”

That is the thrust of the question now before the U.S. Supreme Court: the criminal culpability of juveniles. Donovan said he’s a much different person now than when he came to prison 20 years ago. He said he’s no longer so quick to become angry and he’s discovered the artistic abilities that allow him to draw elaborate pictures that his supporters sell online.

The only time Donovan’s smile fades is when he talks about his family.

“The hardest thing, hands down about being here, is the pain I caused my family,” Donovan said. “They have to come up here and be subject to this. They have to leave me here every time they come up and visit me. They have to hear me all the time. It’s really a slow death. It’s like their son is having a slow death and they have to deal with that. Sort of like the death penalty, only it’s by increments.”

But Donovan is still fighting. He has requested a commutation of his sentence, which Gov. Deval Patrick did not act upon. Depending on what the U.S. Supreme Court decides this summer, Donovan may ask for his sentence to be amended.

Samples of some of the artwork Joe Donovan has created while in prison. (Courtesy of Joe Donovan)

Samples of some of the artwork Joe Donovan has created while in prison. (Courtesy of Joe Donovan)

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • Dennis921

    Why was McHugh released?

    • Deb

      Google NECN  Joe Donovan…. watch/listen to the story

  • Guest

    Seems like the wrong person is in jail.  McHugh should have never been released.  Anyone who kills someone just to see what it feels like – not matter what their age – should never walk free again.

    • Deb C.

      The three of them went to jail ….. Joe had just turned 17 and was considered an adult…  that is where the problem layed….the other two served some time…  Check FaceBook… keep up with the happenings for Joe Donovan! We Believe.

  • Monika Gibbons

    What a tragic story!  What is he still doing in jail?!!   Especially when the victim’s family supports his release.  Free Joe Donovan!!  

    • Deb Cormir

      Thank you Monika, Please Google Joe Donovan and you will be brought to his interviews, etc.  We are fighting for him, praying for him and believe in our hearts that justice, allbeit delayed, will be done. Thank you again.  Deb Cormier

  • guest

    Just shows how backwards this all is

  • Anonymous

    Good luck to Joe, and thank you for giving this interview and raising awareness about the Felony Murder Rule.  I so hope that this Supreme Court ruling will help all those young men and women who have been so harshly sentenced by this profoundly flawed and unjust law.

    • DLC2117


  • CC

    I heard this story this AM. He should absolutely be released. Least involvement with the act itself, and most time. The system needs to be re-evaluated. 

  • Johannas

    Joey… I went to high school with Joey, though I cannot say that I have stayed in touch with him nor have I ever known too many details of the story. All I remember from this situation is thinking to myself whole heartedly that I could NOT imagine Joey being responsible for taking someone’s life. I remember him as warm, vibrant, witty, and gentle. I can see him in my head as this 17 yr old with his electric smile & blue eyes to match!
    I’m so sorry this has been your life, and I hope and pray for your release & wellbeing.
    Best, J

  • William Burke

    Google  “MIT Murder 1992″ for a contemporary account from the MIT News Office.

    In this interview Mr Donovan suggests that a fight broke out by chance.  

    The earlier account suggests that the robbery, at least, was premeditated.  And that Mr Donovan initiated the violence, successfully knocking Mr Raustein to the ground with a single punch as a part of a challenge or game.

    I certainly support reform of juvenile sentencing.  I do believe that Mr Donovan may be rehabilitated and, if so, should be released.  But it doesn’t help to ignore the darker details.

    • shimmy86

      I saw this on the news back in Norway now, and the family of Raustein supports that Donovan should be given a new chance. That shouldn’t decide the matter but at least there is no opposition from the victim’s family

  • Eileen


  • Jan

    This story is chilling, and I fear that it could happen to anyone.  I pray that Joe Donovan is freed.

  • C.H. Carter

    I worked for a DYS Vendor Program back then and there were a couple of guys in the same situation! That really sucks! “LIFE”??????? I dont know about that one!!!

Most Popular