BOSTON — A parole hearing is scheduled later this month for one of the dozens of inmates serving a life sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile.
Joseph Donovan was sent to prison in 1992, when he was 17 years old, after he was convicted of the murder of an MIT student.
The state Supreme Judicial Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled that automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Donovan is the first inmate in Massachusetts to accept the offer of a parole hearing following the rulings.
Scott Farmelant, spokesperson for the Donovan family, joined WBUR to discuss the details of this case and the process Donovan will enter as he faces standing before a parole board.
Deb Becker: So remind us of some of the details of the Joseph Donovan case. He was convicted for the murder of Yngve Raustein, although he was not the murderer. He was with a group of friends who confronted Raustein and another friend on Memorial Drive in Cambridge back in 1992.
One of the other people involved apparently got into a verbal confrontation. Donovan punched Raustein. Donovan’s hand broke, but then a 15-year-old with Donovan at the time actually stabbed Raustein, and Raustein died. The 15-year-old served a 10-year sentence because he was a juvenile and charged as a juvenile, but because Donovan was 17 — the age of adult criminal responsibility at that time in Massachusetts — he was sentenced to life in prison. That’s correct, right?
Scott Farmelant: Yes. He was convicted of felony murder at trial and sentenced to mandatory life without parole.
Now, Donovan is the first to accept this offer for a parole hearing under this ruling by the SJC in Massachusetts and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012, which said that it was unconstitutional to automatically sentence juveniles to life in prison. How is it that Donovan’s cases the first to be heard?
The best answer and the shortest answer is that Donovan and his family and his legal team have moved forward in the process that is available to them. So, this is an opportunity for Joe’s case to be heard. For, hopefully, the case to be weighed on the merits of its facts and to evaluate the circumstances surrounding the commission of this crime, and the age of Joe as an offender. And the fact that Joe threw a punch and started a fracas that led to a murder.
All the facts clearly show without dispute that he never had an intent to kill. It was not an idea in his head at the time. And to have the question answered hopefully whether a natural life sentence without parole fits the circumstances of this case.
What might happen during this parole hearing? I mean, could he be released that day, at the end of this month?
We don’t have any expectations of that. We have an expectation, hopefully, that we can go in for a fair hearing. That there will be open minds on the parole board to hear this man’s story, to get a sense of who he is today. He is a fully matured, grownup man. He has accomplished a pretty impressive record of self-knowledge and learning. They will focus undoubtedly on his disciplinary record at the various institutions he’s been held at.
And could his discipline record keep him held longer?
I’m not going to make a prediction on that front, but I will say that his record was difficult in the first seven years. He got in a lot of violent, physical altercations. In his mind, doing a natural life sentence, these were necessary to survive. If you look clearly at the record he has had an almost dramatically 180-degree turn since 2003 or 2004, where it’s been no violent incidents, and he’s been largely problem-free since.