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Bella English

Rockland woman champions convict’s cause

Joe Donovan’s ‘‘Peace Tree,’’ a pencil-and-paper drawing.

Joe Donovan’s ‘‘Peace Tree,’’ a pencil-and-paper drawing.

Every Friday, Carol Hallisey leaves her Rockland home before 10 a.m., drives a couple of hours to MCI-Shirley, takes a “deli number’’ for a place in line, fills out the various forms required by the state Department of Correction, and waits.

Around noon, her number will be called, and she goes through security, walks into the prison, and enters the canteen, which has vending machines. She is adamant about arriving early. If she’s among the first in line, the machines will usually have the salad and the fruit and the ice cream that Joey craves. “The rush to the canteen is like Filene’s Basement,’’ says Hallisey.

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Visits with prisoners don’t begin until 1 p.m., so after she gets the food, Hallisey waits again. At 1, she and Joey have lunch together, out of the vending machines; visitors are not allowed to bring food in.

“I’m Joey’s ‘Girl Friday,’ ’’ is the way Hallisey describes herself and her Friday routine.

Joey is Joe Donovan, who has served 18 years in prison for his role in the 1992 stabbing murder of Yngve Raustein, an MIT student from Norway. Donovan didn’t kill Raustein, although he did throw a punch that knocked him to the ground.

The killer, Shon McHugh, was 15 years old at the time. Tried as a juvenile, he was released in 2003 after 11 years in prison. Donovan, who had turned 17 just three weeks before the murder, was tried as an adult and got a life sentence without parole, even though he was unarmed. He is 36 now, a grown man who has served more years than his age at the time of the crime, and is looking at decades more.

But not if Hallisey can help it. Though she is not a blood relative - she’s the longtime partner of one of Donovan’s uncles - Donovan considers her a beloved aunt, and she has taken on his case as a labor of love.

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Hallisey’s home office is the repository of huge files on the case. She is in close contact with his relatives, coordinates the flow of information to family and friends, works with the media to get the case publicized, types letters from him, mails the holiday cards he creates, and promotes his prison artwork, which recently was selected from among hundreds to be included in an international Peace Project Mosaic. His entry: “Peace Tree’’ (shown above).

“Joe’s biography was the only one included in the catalogue,’’ she says, proudly. Hallisey also coordinates a prayer e-mail list. “His mother and I call upon all our family and friends to go into high prayerful mode when I feel there’s something really important happening,’’ she says.

She is, in short, captain of what she calls Team Joey. She and Donovan’s uncle have sent out more than 100 informational packets to lawyers, universities, clergy, legislators, advocates, and journalists in the hope someone, somewhere, will take an interest.

She has had good training for her advocacy. She was involved in the opening of the first rape crisis center in Brockton, and a domestic violence shelter. She’s recently retired from a social services agency where she was administrative assistant to the CEO. You could say she’s got a thing for the underdog.

For Donovan, Hallisey also helped coordinate an online petition and letters of support, signed by more than 1,500 people. The victim’s mother and brother support the commutation of Donovan’s sentence, and McHugh, the freed killer, has said that Donovan knew nothing about the plan to rob and kill Raustein.

In May 2010, Donovan appealed to the parole board for a commutation hearing but was denied. When Hallisey called to find out why, she was told that “he did not have any rehabilitation.’’

Her response: “This kid is more rehabilitated than I have ever been, or most people walking the streets.’’ The Catch-22, she explains, is that prisoners who have life without parole are not offered any rehabilitation programs in prison.

Hallisey says Donovan has conducted his own forms of rehab: the drawings he does for others, his avid reading, even cooking for other inmates in his cell with limited means. “He’s very grounded and very bright,’’ she says. “He was a stupid kid; he didn’t even know there was a murder until he was arrested. He wrote a letter to the victim’s mother saying he was sorry for starting a fight and he’s felt guilty all these years.’’

Last year, the US Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional - but only for crimes that did not involve killing.

Carol Hallisey, whose own son lives in Seattle, never intended to be the point person for Donovan, but the case has consumed her and she calls it “one of the most frustrating challenges of my life.’’

She has become close to Donovan’s parents, who are divorced. Joe Donovan Sr. says he appreciates Hallisey’s involvement and feels she has brought needed attention to the case. “She could not have done more for him than if he were her own son,’’ says Donovan, who lives in Charlestown.

Joey himself recently told her that she has “twisted arms, browbeat, and talked people’s ears off’’ to gain support for him, she says.

Hallisey says she won’t rest until he is free and, despite setbacks, remains hopeful. “I told him, next Christmas, Joey, you’re coming down to our house and cooking dinner.’’ It’s a date that doubtless he’d love to keep.

Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.

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