For DAs in parole cases, hard line isn’t always best

MIDDLESEX DISTRICT Attorney Marian Ryan could have honed the image of a tough prosecutor by objecting to the parole of Joseph Donovan, a 38-year-old Cambridge man who was convicted of first-degree murder before his 18th birthday. But she chose a wiser path by recommending that Donovan be subject to a “successful step-down transition” before returning to society.

Donovan, who has spent 22 years in prison, was convicted under the state’s joint venture law for the 1992 murder of Norwegian MIT student Yngve Raustein. He received a mandatory life sentence without parole. Donovan, who was barely 17 at the time, didn’t wield the murder weapon but he did instigate the attack. Efforts have been underway for years to commute his sentence. Raustein’s mother and the original trial judge are among those who have described Donovan’s sentence as excessive or unjust.

Donovan received a meaningful opportunity for parole due to a 2013 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court that retroactively eliminated mandatory life sentences without parole for anyone under 18. But chances still looked dim that he would convince the Parole Board he deserved freedom based, in part, on his disciplinary record during his earlier years of incarceration. District attorneys, who speak on behalf of the victims, have a lot of clout during parole hearings. And because Donovan’s case could be seen as a close call, DA Ryan’s objection might have destroyed his chance for freedom.


But Ryan took the high road. She didn’t object to parole. Instead, she reinforced the Parole Board’s requirement that Donovan spend six months in a rehabilitative program and one year in a lower-level security prison before his release. These are reasonable conditions. It was a sharp contrast to the position of her predecessor, former Middlesex DA Gerard Leone, who denounced the SJC decision that opened the way for reduced sentences for juvenile murderers.

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Donovan is the third Massachusetts man since June to receive parole based on the SJC’s decision. There are about 60 additional prisoners in the same category. Some, like Donovan, deserve a second chance. Others pose too great a risk of reoffending. But each committed their crimes before reaching developmental and neurological maturity. And each deserves an eventual opportunity to prove they are ready to live outside the prison walls.

Some DAs may have trouble adjusting to the changes in the sentencing of juvenile murderers. Ryan, at least, has shown it is possible to make room for the redemption of a prisoner while protecting the safety of the public.