Joseph Donovan, who has spent more than half his life in prison for throwing a punch that led to a young man’s murder on a Cambridge street, will soon be free, an outcome that once seemed impossible.
In a 6-0 vote, the Massachusetts Parole Board announced Thursday that Donovan, who is now 38, should be released following six months in a rehabilitative program and one year in a lower level security prison.
The move to release Donovan, who was 17 when he was arrested for the 1992 murder of a 22-year-old MIT student, is the latest of three decisions by the board to grant parole to inmates convicted of first degree murders committed before their 18th birthday.
“I’ve been waiting for 22 years for this,” said Donovan’s father, Joseph Donovan Sr. “I was always hoping that I’d see a light at the end of the tunnel and now the light has been turned on.”
The announcement of Donovan’s case came one day after the board said it had voted to parole a 36-year-old convicted for stabbing a man following a fight at a party. The vote came over the objections of prosecutors and the victim’s family, but cheered advocates for shorter prison sentences who had been anxious about how the board would view inmates convicted as teenagers.
The decisions follow a ruling by the state Supreme Judicial Court in December that struck down life sentences without parole for juveniles. Sixty-five inmates in Massachusetts are affected by the decision, which has led lawmakers to advocate that such inmates not be eligible for parole until they have served 20 to 30 years in prison. Parole eligibility for inmates serving life sentences is 15 years.
Donovan was convicted in the murder of Yngve Raustein from Norway.
After Donovan punched Raustein, his co-defendant, 15-year-old Shon McHugh, stabbed him to death and robbed his wallet. McHugh served only 10 years because he was tried as a juvenile, rather than as an adult, like Donovan.
As the years passed, calls for Donovan’s release came from Raustein’s family, the judge who sentenced him prison, and even some of the jurors who convicted him.
On Thursday, Raustein’s younger brother, Dan-Jarle Elmersønn Køhler Raustein, who was 18 around the time of the murder, said he was relieved by the decision.
“The sentence given to him was way too harsh,” the victim’s brother said in an email. “I do believe the right justice have been done. Joe is still young enough to make a life for himself.”
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan’s office did not oppose Donovan’s parole at his hearing, but recommended he spend time in a low-security facility before release.
“The determination of whether Mr. Donovan was a suitable candidate for parole was a complex and difficult one,” Ryan said in a statement Thursday. “Our thoughts are with Yngve Raustein’s family at this time.”
In May, Donovan became the first inmate sentenced to life for a crime committed as a juvenile to go before the parole board, which grilled him for at least four hours about the crime and his troubled early years in prison.
He described his long record of violations, including several assaults -- one of them against a correction officer -- as the actions of a scared, frustrated inmate who blamed everyone but himself for his problems.
“I didn’t emphathize,” he told the board. “I didn’t put myself in other people’s shoes.”
While he was in solitary confinement for one of his transgressions, he said he began to think about redeeming himself. Since 2000, his record in prison was free of disciplinary action.
In their decision, written by Chairman Josh Wall, the board said it was concerned that Donovan had not participated in more rehabilitative programs.
It also said it believed Donovan has downplayed his role in the events of the night of the murder, describing himself as less culpable even though there was evidence Donovan hit Raustein with the intention of robbing him. But, the board said, Donovan had done enough time.
“Donovan has been severely punished by serving 22 years for a stabbing murder that he did not intend or commit,” Wall wrote. “Some of his important years of maturation were in prison under the influence of older, poorly behaved inmates ... Six months of rehabilitative programming will be adequate and very beneficial for Donovan.”
Donovan’s lawyer, Ingrid Martin, said the board’s decision to emphasize programs makes sense.
“I understand why they made the decision they did,” she said. “This is the right outcome.”
Advocates for shorter prison sentences said it is too early to tell whether the board, which has been criticized by defense lawyers for its reluctance to release inmates serving life sentences, is showing that it is more likely to release convicts whose crimes were committed as juveniles.
“I would love to say it bodes well and I think that 75 percent of all juvenile inmates are going to be released but I can’t say that,” said Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services.
Success with the board often depends on the programming an inmate sought. But Walker said a prisoner’s ability to get into a rehabilitative program depends on the prison and the budget, a point that parole officials have disputed.
“It’s just much too dependent on the luck of the draw and where you serve your sentence,” Walker said.
Patty Garin, a Boston defense lawyer, noted the decisions have been made just weeks or even days after the parole board hearing. Most inmates serving life sentences have to wait several months for an outcome.
“This is a huge departure from the way this board has operated,” Garin said. “Suddenly, we’re getting decisions quickly. I hope it continues.”
A parole official said the decisions have come more quickly because the inmates were well beyond their parole eligibility dates. Donovan was seven years past his eligibility date.