Joe Donovan and Frederick Christian were teenagers when they took part in crimes that ended in murder.
Neither delivered the fatal blow to their victims, but each was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.
After two decades in prison, Donovan and Christian are set
Within the legal community, Donovan and Christian are considered important test cases for how willing the Parole Board will be to grant release to such inmates. Many fear that if they are denied, the chances of parole for those who committed the act of killing will be minute.
“It’s going to be watched very closely,” said the state’s child advocate, Gail Garinger, a former Juvenile Court judge who supports parole for inmates who were convicted as juveniles and sentenced to life in prison without parole. “We’re all very, very excited that these individuals now have an opportunity to appear before the Parole Board. We’re really hoping and anticipating that they will receive a meaningful hearing.”
Donovan, 38, has seen the family of his victim, an MIT student stabbed during a Cambridge robbery, come forward and call for his release. Christian, 37, who watched as his friend gunned down two Brockton men, has lived a relatively quiet life behind bars, with no record of violent incidents since his conviction.
Still, advocates for shorter sentences are anxious about the two men’s chances of release before a board that has been reluctant to parole even those serving life sentences for second-degree murder or other crimes, after two people were killed in 2009 and 2010 by convicts who had been paroled from life sentences.
The general rate of paroles has remained relatively stable at 58 percent, but for lifers the rate has been much lower. In 2013, only 23 percent of inmates serving life sentences who came before the board were granted parole, compared with 48 percent in 2010.
In 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to sentence defendants to life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, largely because of growing scientific evidence that young brains are not as equipped as adult brains to control violent impulses and understand the consequences of rash behavior. That led the state’s top court to issue a similar ruling in December.
Josh Wall, Parole Board chairman, said the panel has always considered the age of an inmate at the time of the crime.
“Inmates who have committed second-degree murder as juveniles have received parole at a measurably higher rate than adults,” he said.
Between April 2011 and December 2013, the board paroled 36 percent of inmates who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles.
The inmate’s role in a killing is also relevant to the board, Wall said.
“It always matters what the inmate actually did,” he said. “If somebody stood there without a weapon while a codefendant killed someone, that person has a different path of rehabilitation than the person who pulled the trigger.”
Donovan is one of the best known of the 65 Massachusetts inmates affected by the court’s decision. Of those, 44 have already served at least 15 years of their sentence, making them eligible for parole. Except for Donovan and Christian, they all have postponed their hearings while their lawyers prepare for the cases and receive training for the proceedings.
Donovan was 17 years old on Sept. 18, 1992, when he was roaming near the MIT campus with two other Cambridge youths, 15-year-old Shon McHugh and 18-year-old Alfredo Velez. The trio ran into Yngve Raustein, a slight Norwegian 21-year-old, and his friend, Arne Fredheim. The friends were speaking in Norweigan when the trio confronted them.
“What did you say?” Donovan asked Raustein angrily, Fredheim would recall at the trial. He then punched Raustein so hard the student fell to his knees.
Then Fredheim saw McHugh approach his friend with a knife. The teenagers stole the students’ wallets and ran away.
“They took my wallet,” Fredheim recalled his friend saying. Raustein tried to take a few steps, then collapsed, clutching his chest. His shirt was covered with blood.
McHugh, who stabbed Raustein, was tried as a juvenile because of his age and served 10 years of a 20-year prison sentence. Velez testified against Donovan and McHugh and was released after 10 years.
A jury convicted Donovan of first-degree murder.
Donovan was a difficult inmate at first, according to his disciplinary record, fighting with other inmates and trashing his cellblock.
By 2009, he calmed down, according to the records. In the last five years he has had no incidents on his disciplinary reports. He earned his GED and began tutoring other prisoners, according to his family, and has signed up for a series of programs including antiviolence workshops, computer courses, and health classes.
In 2010, when Donovan tried to have his sentence commuted, Raustein’s mother submitted a brief letter supporting his bid. The family stands by that statement and has no plans to attend the parole hearing, Raustein’s brother said in an e-mail to the Globe.
“We have not changed our minds regarding Joe’s release,” Raustein’s younger brother, Dan-Jarle Raustein, wrote.
In the last month, a string of people, including legislators, one of the jurors who helped convict him, and even Fredheim have supported Donovan’s release.
“Restraining Joseph Donovan from a life in my view does not serve the memory of Yngve Raustein,” Fredheim wrote the Parole Board May 11.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan plans to send a prosecutor to the hearing, but declined to say what position her office will take.
In the case of Christian, Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz will argue against parole, a spokesman for Cruz said.
“It’s our belief that the appropriate sentence would not entail him being released at that time,” said the spokesman, Russ Eonas.
Christian was 17 when he and a friend, Russell Horton, 18, got into a car with three other men. The five drove around Brockton before Horton told the driver, Manuel Araujo, to stop at a house so that he and Christian could rip off drug dealers they thought lived there. When the two men got back to the car, Horton told Araujo to drive to a nearby park. Without a word, he shot Araujo, his brother Carlos, and the man in the passenger seat, Kepler Desir. Carlos Araujo survived by pretending to be dead and later identified Horton as the shooter.
Christian told police he knew of the drug-rip off but did not know that Horton planned to shoot anyone.
Horton “just snapped,” Christian told investigators, according to police reports. Horton and Christian were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Eonas said prosecutors believe both the Desir and Araujo families plan to attend the hearing to oppose parole.
A family’s opinion matters, Parole Board watchers say.
“That’s always compelling,” said Gerard T. Leone Jr., a former Middlesex district attorney. “What does the family think?”
Still, he said, “it’s not the endgame because the board makes a decision for the sake of the community, not just the family involved.”
How a prisoner spends his time incarcerated is also significant. Christian’s disciplinary history shows no fights with other inmates. His worst transgressions appear to include hiding pornography in Muslim magazines and tattooing his chest with the continent of Africa, violating prison rules.
He has worked steadily since 2002 while in prison, immersed himself in religion, and spends most of his time in the law library, according to correction records.
Wall declined to comment on the two upcoming cases, but said the goal of any hearing is to get as much information from the inmate as possible.
“We are looking for rehabilitated inmates,” he said. “And the two most important things in determining rehabilitation is that the inmate presents no current risk for violence and that the inmate has prepared himself to be a law-abiding and productive member of the community.”