The Massachusetts Parole Board is now considering whether to release a man serving a life prison sentence for a crime committed when he was a juvenile.
During hours of intense questioning Thursday, 38-year-old Joseph Donovan told the parole board that he is a changed man. But some board members appeared skeptical.
Donovan said he was a "stupid kid" when he — along with two of his friends — got into a confrontation with an MIT student, Yngve Raustein, in Cambridge in 1992. During that confrontation, one of Donovan's friends fatally stabbed Raustein.
"I know the choices I've made in the past have caused a lot of pain," he said. "It is my earnest hope that this board can see that I've grown out of the ignorance of my youth into a thoughtful man who is not a danger to society and hopefully will one day be a benefit to it."
Donovan was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole because at the time he was 17 years-old — which was the age of adult criminal responsibility in Massachusetts. His friend who stabbed Raustein was 15 years old at the time and served a 10-year sentence.
Much of the parole board's questioning focused on Donovan's disciplinary record in prison, which includes several violent incidents and seven years in solitary confinement. But Donovan said for the past 14 years, his record has been good and those earlier incidents were because of his age and fear in prison.
"Yeah, it was a very violent place to be. Very scary. And I thought I had to be a tough guy," he said.
But Parole Board Chairman Josh Wall said other inmates in similar circumstances don't have the same disciplinary record. He also questioned why Donovan was not involved in more rehabilitation programs in prison. Donovan says he wasn't always eligible for programs because of his life sentence.
The only person to voice an objection to the board was the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Donovan, John McEvoy.
He said Donovan was downplaying his involvement in a robbery that resulted in a murder. McEvoy did not explicitly argue against parole, and he said that the Raustein family feels that Donovan should be released.
Donovan was asked what might be some of the challenges for him if that happens.
"Technology is one thing ... Just the drive up here, I see everybody's cellphones. I don't know any of this stuff," he said. "There"s gonna be a big learning curve."
Donovan's father, Joe Donovan Sr., says because his son grew up in prison, he'll likely need a transitional or step-down program first. He says he came away from the hearing hopeful about his son's possible release and grateful that he had a chance to be heard.
"When they go in front of the board, they listen to him and they make a decision," he said. "I think this board will come up with the right decision."
This hearing was the first since the state's highest court ruled that mandatory life without parole prison sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, making 44 Massachusetts inmates eligible for parole. The court ruled that juveniles do not have the maturity to be held as culpable as adults.
The parole board also reviewed the case of Frederick Christian on Thursday. Christian was sentenced to life in prison in 1998 for killing two men in a drug-related robbery.
Josh Dohan, a juvenile public defender, says these are test cases for how the board might handle future cases involving juveniles, and said that overall, he found the hearings encouraging.
"We'll have to see when they make their decision, but they seemed to be paying attention to the question of what's the maturation here, what's the rehabilitation?" he said. "Is the remorse genuine and not focusing so much on the questions of punishment and deterrence."
Four board members would have to vote in favor of parole for either man to be released. The board will issue its written decision, but it has no specific timeframe by which to do so.