If anyone deserves what the state Supreme Judicial Court called a “meaningful opportunity” for parole, it’s Joseph Donovan, a former Cambridge resident who has spent a disproportionately long time — almost 22 years — in prison.
Donovan, 38, is among the first prisoners to receive a parole hearing because of a 2013 ruling in which the court retroactively eliminated mandatory life sentences without parole for anyone under the age of 18. He was convicted under the state’s joint venture law for the 1992 murder of Norwegian MIT student Yngve Raustein. Donovan was barely 17, the age of adulthood in criminal cases at the time. He didn’t wield the murder weapon. But he did instigate the attack by punching Raustein. Shon McHugh, a 15-year-old juvenile, stabbed the victim in the ensuing chaos. McHugh served just 11 years in prison for killing Raustein.
Donovan is scheduled to appear before the seven-member Parole Board on May 29. He is in a strong position to argue that granting him parole would be compatible with the welfare of society. At the time of the crime, Donovan was an impetuous teenager who struck out with no regard for the consequences. Such an adolescent state of mind is precisely the reason why the US Supreme Court and lower courts have ruled against mandatory life sentences without parole for anyone under 18.
Subsequently, Donovan has taken responsibility for his role in Raustein’s death. He has availed himself of self-improvement opportunities in prison. And he has kept his nose clean, aside from a few fights during his early years of incarceration.
Parole boards must decide if a prisoner has truly changed and no longer poses a significant risk to reoffend. That’s not easy. One might imagine, therefore, why board members might want to impose “step down” conditions on Donovan’s parole, such as a short transition period in a minimum-security prison before his release into society. What is unimaginable, however, is that justice would be served by many years of further incarceration of someone who — at 17 — threw an ill-fated punch.
Messages of support have arrived from surprising corners. The former trial judge, Robert Barton, has written that Donovan’s punishment was “unjust and excessive.’’ In an incredible act of graciousness, Raustein’s mother and brother have supported the commutation of Donovan’s sentence. Just this month, the second victim of the attack, Arne Fredheim, urged the Parole Board to take positive action on Donovan’s petition.
About 60 prisoners are serving life sentences without parole in Massachusetts for crimes committed before age 18. Some of them aren’t good candidates for parole. But Donovan is among those who deserve a second chance.