Joe Donovan was supposed to spend the rest of his life in prison for his role in a man’s death one night in 1992. Soon he will find out whether Massachusetts ever intends to give him a second chance.
Donovan is serving a life sentence without parole for his first-degree murder conviction in the killing of Yngve Raustein, an MIT student. Donovan and two associates set upon Raustein and another student on Memorial Drive. Donovan punched Raustein. After that, a kid named Sean McHugh stabbed him to death, according to court documents.
Donovan, who had just turned 17, was charged as an adult. His sentence of life without parole was automatic. Under the state’s joint-venture law, he had participated in a felony that resulted in a murder.
Case closed, until now. Donovan will appear before the Parole Board on May 29 in an attempt to win his release.
Of the three assailants, Donovan’s punishment was the harshest. McHugh, the stabber, was 15 and could not be tried as an adult. He served 11 years before his release. The other assailant, Alfredo Velez, testified against his accomplices in exchange for a reduced charge of manslaughter. He’s been out for years, too.
Donovan gets his chance thanks to a US Supreme Court ruling overturning mandatory life sentences for people, like Donovan, who were under 18 when they committed their crimes.
The law has caught up with the longstanding scientific view that teenagers’ brains are different from those of adults — particularly in the ability to grasp the consequences of their actions. Under the mandatory sentencing laws at the time, there was no opportunity to consider Donovan’s age or his actual role in the crime.
“My view in life is that automatic sentences are a treacherous thing,” said Donovan’s attorney, Ingrid S. Miller of Collora LLP. “Every criminal comes with their own set of facts and circumstances. When you look at what happened that night, the judge should have had the opportunity to make an individualized sentence for him. The Parole Board is the first chance we’ve ever had to ask for that.”
Over time, the sentiment for holding Donovan forever has melted. During a push for commuting his sentence four years ago, the victim’s family and the original trial judge, Robert Barton, wrote letters in support of releasing Donovan. Still, his bid was rejected.
Now, the politics of parole may be turning. Some believe the board is sensitive to charges that it has overreacted in recent years, as it has routinely denied parole for violent offenders. The panel is seen as more open to considering parolees’ individual circumstances.
In his 21 years behind bars, Donovan has not been a model prisoner, but Scott Farmelant, a spokesman for Donovan, says his last violent offense was in 2000. Donovan has also consistently expressed remorse for the crime, a major condition of parole. In short, he’s grown up, albeit behind bars.
Even if the board backs releasing Donovan, he likely wouldn’t be released next week. The board would probably ask the Department of Corrections to move him to a minimum-security prison and monitor his conduct up to a year. After that, he would be released.
Part of what will be on trial next week is our belief in second chances. Donovan certainly made a tragic mistake. But he has served well over half his life for a murder he did not, in fact, commit — even though he had a hand in the attack. The argument for continuing to hold him, under a sentence that would be unconstitutional now, has unraveled, and the Parole Board should recognize it.
Joe Donovan has done his time.
■ Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the date that Joe Donovan was last disciplined by prison officials for a violent offense. Donovan’s last such citation occurred in July 2000.