Paroled After Life Sentence For Juvenile Crime, Joe Donovan Works Towards His Release

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Joe Donovan speaks with WBUR's Deborah Becker. (Courtesy of Jason Pugatch)
Joe Donovan speaks with WBUR's Deborah Becker. (Courtesy of Jason Pugatch)

Around the country, states are beginning to release people from prison who thought they would be there for life.

Following a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that it's unconstitutional for juveniles convicted of murder to automatically be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, some 2,500 cases across the country must be reviewed.

Here in Massachusetts, the state Parole Board has reviewed 20 juvenile cases so far — granting parole to nine people so long as they meet certain conditions before they're released.

One of the most well known cases is that of Joe Donovan, who threw a punch that led to the murder of MIT student Yngve Raustein. Donovan has been incarcerated for murder since 1992, when he was 17 years old. Last year he was granted parole. This August he turns 40.

We recently met with Donovan in a small conference room at the minimum security facility in Bridgewater where he was transferred six months ago. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, Donovan is able to walk around here unshackled and attend several programs.

Donovan says this is vastly different from the maximum security facilities where he's been for the past 23 years — most of that time spent in solitary confinement, an experience Donovan says may have helped him.

"I would like to think that if I could emotionally make it through that then I could make it through being free," he says. "Maybe because I was so young, or just my personality in general, because I've got attention deficit disorder, that it made me sort of focus on myself."

During his parole hearing last year, officials pointed to Donovan's record in prison and to several violent incidents — especially when he was first sent to the state prison at Walpole.

"It was a more violent place back then and where they had me was the most violent," Donovan says. "[Now] I don't feel the need to prove myself and I don't feel threatened, and not feeling threatened is a big part of not being violent. I thought I had to survive that way.

"Some people come out of it better than others," Donovan adds. "I imagine when an 18-year-old kid gets drafted and thrown into combat, some people crack, and some people come out stronger. It was definitely a very harrowing experience back then. I like to say it made me better instead of damaged me."

Donovan now spends about four hours a day in anger management and counseling programs. He also sees a therapist, and trains dogs to help disabled veterans. He says much of the programming emphasizes decision making.

"If you give yourself a couple of seconds to think about it, you don't react as quickly, it's easier to make decisions," Donovan says. "You know, instead of making a decision from an emotional place, you make one from an intellectual place."

That's a skill Donovan wishes he would have had back in September 1992 on Memorial Drive in Cambridge when he and two other young men walked by a group of MIT students, including Raustein. Donovan says the two groups got into a scuffle and he punched Raustein. With Raustein on the ground, 15-year-old Shon McHugh fatally stabbed Raustein — something Donovan says he didn't realize had happened until after they had fled.

Because McHugh was a juvenile at the time and Donovan was not, McHugh has since been released. Raustein's family has written a letter supporting Donovan's release, but Donovan hasn't heard from them since he was granted parole last August.

"I don't want to intrude and remind them. I'm sure they remember every day," he says.

Donovan says he's not angry with how things happened, with a criminal justice system that sent him to prison for the rest of his life and then decided that wasn't right.

"How I look at it is, the system is made for the majority of people. My case was a very, it's not something that happens often," Donovan says. "But it was often enough in this country that they changed the law on it. But it's still a system that works. It's a great system but, you know, it needs help."

Donovan is training to be a paralegal and hopes to work in the legal field when he gets out. He also spends hours doing elaborate pencil sketches and says he wants to continue creating art. But Donovan seems reluctant, or maybe not yet able to easily answer what he wants or expects or hopes for once he's released to streets very different from the ones he remembers.

"Hopefully I don't get hit by a flying car — they don't have those yet, right?" he says, laughing. "I'm probably going to be in awe with some of this stuff I see, just some of the stuff I see on TV, it looks like 'Star Trek' to me. And you know, I don't understand texting."

Donovan is reluctant to talk about what it is he wants to do, not what he will have to do once he's out.

"The dream thing I don't really have. A lot of the dreams that I would really like, you know, I would like to go see museums. I would love to go to the Louvre. There's things that I can't do, I really can't leave the state," he says. "I'll keep my dreams sort of within reasonable reach, and so my dream is really just being with my family and being free."

That's when Donovan does show emotion, when he talks about his family.

"It killed them. They had to come up here and see all this misery, and all the times I went to the hole," Donovan say. "You know, everything I've been through they went through it with me. It really hurts. That hurt me more than anything else."

Donovan's exact release date will depend on when he completes the programming in Bridgewater and then what happens during the three to six months he must spend in a residential program. After that he plans to live with his family in Cambridge. He'll be on parole for the rest of his life.

This segment aired on June 9, 2015.


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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