Joe Donovan beat impossible odds in being paroled from a life sentence. With his release this month, he and his advocates recount the nightmare behind them and brace for a daunting road ahead.
No one ever accused Joe Donovan of killing anyone, but he was convicted of murder nonetheless.
The story of his trial is legend in Cambridge. A 17-year-old student at the city’s Rindge and Latin School in the fall of 1992, Donovan left his home one Friday after dinner with his family and happened upon two neighborhood toughs who were casual schoolyard acquaintances. After deciding to cross over the Charles River to Boston, while walking on the campus side of Memorial Drive near the Mass Ave Bridge, the trio encountered two MIT students from Norway, Arne Fredheim and Yngve Raustein. Full of teenage angst and insecure machismo, Donovan punched Raustein in the head after sensing that the foreign student was mocking him.
In a moment which would haunt all who were there ever after and that would be picked to the nerve in courtrooms over the subsequent three decades, following his punch, one of Donovan’s associates, Shon McHugh, proceeded to stab Raustein to death. A student’s life lost, with town vs gown blood spilled publicly — even the New York Times dispatched a columnist to cover the trial — meant prosecutors had to show and prove somebody guilty. With the 15-year-old McHugh being a minor and therefore not eligible for the kind of penalty demanded by editorial writers and the mobs inside the courtroom — and with his other associate from that evening, one Alfredo Velez, cooperating with police — the heavy burden of a life sentence fell squarely on Donovan.
Unlike some of his cellmates in the Massachusetts penal system who played God to earn their raps, Donovan was found guilty of the far more technical offense of felony murder for the death of Raustein. In order to justify such charges, the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office apparently forged a storyline in which the three teenagers had conspired ahead of time to rob college students. Naively convinced that he would be exonerated since McHugh wielded the knife, and since no such plan ever existed, Donovan rejected a deal with the DA. He had no clue at the time that the same prosecutor’s office would do everything in its power to keep him under state supervision for the rest of his life.
I spent the better part of 2009 examining Donovan’s case and also studying the media fiasco that fed the perception that he is (or ever was) a monster. Among other misconceptions stemming from the case, the savage act in which young Donovan participated has been cited as an early example of the so-called “Knockout Game,” an enduring urban legend and press fascination that resurfaces every few years. In the time since my initial plunge into the court records and testimonies, I have revisited the case on two occasions — once to take a reporter to task for botching an account of the Memorial Drive incident in writing a gratuitous Knockout article, and another time when Donovan first came up for parole, and I republished my original piece along with a letter I wrote to his gatekeepers.
Despite his being sentenced to life with no chance for release for his involvement in the ’92 slaying, Donovan’s plight brightened in December 2013, when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that it is unconstitutional for defendants under 18 years of age to receive life without parole for any crime. After spending more than half of his life in a cage, Donovan found himself before the Massachusetts Parole Board in May 2014. The process wasn’t easy; as a result of the rough adjustment period he had as an adolescent in a vicious prison, which led to his spending seven years total in solitary confinement, Donovan was forced to answer for some violent behavior from years ago. Parole board members ultimately believed his recovery story, though, and in August 2014 granted him parole.
For anybody following the case, and certainly for those of us who had invested significant time and emotion pushing for Donovan, the news was utterly miraculous. Just five years earlier, a Donovan family friend compared his chances of getting a new trial to “a quarterback completing a 100-yard Hail Mary pass.” It hadn’t mattered that Velez’s story changed over the course of the prosecution, or that even the judge who handed Donovan his sentence later slammed the verdict as unjust. As a Donovan trial juror recounted years after the trial, “It was awful … I mean yes, there was a murder committed; but, he literally did not commit the murder himself. It was one of his cohorts that did and he ended up taking the lion’s share of the blame for it.”
Donovan’s dire predicament changed after the SJC decision and to a more extreme extent upon his being granted release. Or so it seemed. At a May 2014 parole hearing, Middlesex Assistant District Attorney John McEvoy, who railroaded Donovan in the ’90s, previewed the roadblocks he was planning to erect. “It seems everyone agrees that Mr. Donovan should not be released immediately to the streets,” the Globe reported McEvoy saying. “I don’t see that he should come out cold turkey.”
I’ve followed Donovan’s tribulations by keeping in touch with advocates like Carol Hallisey, his older cousin, and Jason Pugatch, a documentary filmmaker who is recordingevery step of the gauntlet. In speaking with them and with Donovan himself, he seems to feel less like a person who escaped a life sentence and more like someone for whom freedom remains as elusive as ever. Donovan was released last week — sent to the Wyman Community Reentry Program in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston — as the first step on a path to additional independence. Still, his friends and family members aren’t relieved; rather, they’re scrambling as restlessly as they did back when there seemed no chance whatsoever of Donovan seeing daylight. To keep the shade thrown in spite of his parole, Middlesex ADA McEvoy has gone so far as to thwart a pledge via affidavit by McHugh to confess, all these years later, to an alternative account of the story which shatters the felony murder theory. Determined to defend the county’s version against newly surfaced evidence, McEvoy has apparently gone to great lengths to keep McHugh quiet. The Middlesex DA’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
To show the impact that a single case like this can have on those close to incarcerated parties, I interspersed accounts and excerpts from my recent interviews with Donovan and his most devout advocates with parts of heartfelt notes sent out to garner court support over the past six months. Emailed sporadically by Hallisey, his distant cousin who learned about the situation in 2008 and has visited Donovan regularly since, the updates are both promising and crushing. My seminal feature about this nightmare was titled “The Punch That Took Two Lives.” Told mostly through the voices closest to the turbulence, this sequel is about a system bent on sacrificing the same person’s life twice.
Joey was briefly in the courtroom, as were we, and was able to turn and smile at us for a moment. He was shackled and handcuffed and unable to wave. I loathe seeing him like that. THANKS SO MUCH FOR YOUR PRAYERS, Team Joey angels. Blessings to all of you and your families. –Carol
I hate asking Donovan, or any inmate for that matter, the same questions that everyone asks them. How do you pass your time in there? How bad does the food suck? Still, I selfishly do just that, both because I’m genuinely interested and because small talk helps alleviate the inevitable guilt I always feel on the free end of these conversations. Since he was soon to be paroled at the time of our last talk, I pried even further, asking Donovan to reflect on those questions all the way back to the ’90s. Always gracious and delighted to chat about almost anything, he walked me through the minefield from his initial maximum security fortress to the relatively easygoing prison where he wrapped up his stay with the Department of Correction:
You have to prove yourself. Some guys, depending on what their sentence was, didn’t have to go straight to Walpole [Ed. note: Massachusetts Correctional Institution–Cedar Junction, commonly referred to as MCI-Walpole or simply Walpole, is a historically infamous hellhole and the subject of several fiction and nonfiction accounts of the Commonwealth’s degenerate heyday in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s]. But because I was convicted as an adult, they sent me straight to Walpole. I was stuck there. There was no way back then you could do a few years at Walpole and not get in trouble. I’m sure there were a few people who did it, but it didn’t happen often. I had to basically come up in prison and build a rep, that’s how it goes.
I cook, I draw, I try to do legal stuff and help people if I can. You have your job. I play a lot of cards. In the higher securities you don’t have as much stuff to do, but here there’s yard all day, and there’s a dog program. I had [a dog] for a while, but now I’m an alternate. Everybody who’s in the program gets a dog whenever they want a dog. You get to train it, walk around with it. I adapted well to prison. Maybe it’s just my personality, but I don’t get massively depressed or anything. I just don’t. I might get depressed for a day, but I just shrug it off. Life goes on. You have to make the best of what you have. I always strive for more, but you have to make the best of what you have.
August 1, 2015
Please keep your prayers bombarding the heavens for Joe’s complete release. Thank you for supporting Joe on his long journey to freedom. He will be 40 years old August 25th, having spent the last 24 years of his life in prison. A million thanks to you all! Blessings to you and your families. –Carol
Any prisoner or person in need would be fortunate to have have somebody like Carol Hallisey in their corner. A retired social services administrator who has advocated and fundraised for battered women and children, she’s also a mother and grandmother who, when I met with her in Middleboro, had just cooked back-to-back holiday oven-busters for her family. She cares for her two-year-old great-granddaughter twice a week, but she still makes time to keep in frequent touch with Donovan and to serve as his correspondent on the outside:
He calls me a couple of times a week. If he has messages for someone, he’ll ask me by email. We mostly talk about life in general, this or that. He protects me from things that are upsetting, because I get upset very easily. He says, “There are things I don’t tell you, Carol.” And I’m glad. Recently he’s talking about clothes, and he’s also not sure what he’s going to be able to bring with him [to the halfway house]. He has all these briefs and legal documents.
When I first met him, when his father picked me up at South Shore Plaza and brought me to Walpole, I felt the vibes of what a kind and lovely young man he was. I was a basket case. It was just awful. I’m a babe in the woods. I worked with the battered women’s shelter, but I’d never been close to it, and now I was close.
The very worst day was the day when he was denied commutation for the first time. He told me he wasn’t going to get it, but I was just hoping.
[We wrote letters to everyone] in the beginning, and nobody cared. Then we made a packet, and we still sent it everywhere, about what happened in the courts. And nobody cared. My girlfriend saw a lawyer on TV from California who had a similar case, but he wanted $100,000. I said, “I’ll check petty cash and get back to ya.”
I never anticipated that the [law would change]. But since I met Joey, I have a couple of healing groups. And they have been praying for Joey, and I’m sure a lot of those prayers went toward the court system.
August 20, 2015
The more people I lasso to share Joey’s story, the more are telling me they are not surprised at the old boy corruption network, and they share their ‘legal’ experiences with me. Please continue to pray for the best outcome for Joe: a new trial and his complete freedom from the DOC. A million thanks for supporting Joe through your prayers and more. –Carol
No free man or woman could begin to understand the frustration that someone in Donovan’s corner must shoulder. I don’t try. Instead, I marvel over the apparently endless litigation that he and his advocates pursue so relentlessly. The blessing of parole aside, for the past year especially, every time there is a sunny evidentiary prospect that brings hope of a new trial, some unrelenting power — often the same ADA, McEvoy, who played Velez and McHugh against Donovan in ’92 — emerges to clip the wings of Joey’s Angels.
In one struggle, Donovan’s attorney learned of the existence of testimony from a separate juvenile trial for McHugh that was never introduced during Donovan’s proceedings. Getting access to those documents in their original form has proven difficult, with inklings about files that are strangely missing begetting goose chases through labyrinthine legal bureaucracies. Donovan’s advocates have also collected affidavits from two of the three living witnesses — McHugh and Fredheim, the latter the victim’s Norwegian friend — but have thus far been blocked from using the statements in court due to the tenacious interference of ADA McEvoy. McHugh has been scared out of potentially jeopardizing his own freedom by contradicting his former account of events in court, as has Velez, who gave an alternative account of the story that vindicates Donovan to former NECN journalist Brad Puffer, but now refuses to follow up. As a result, in pushing for a new trial that could spring him from lifetime parole, Donovan’s best bet may be Fredheim.
An affidavit written by the Norwegian and dated Aug 7, 2015, notes that he is “originally from Norway,” that his “primary language is Norwegian,” and that he “was not provided a Norwegian translator at the time of [his] testimony.” Since his “understanding of the English language at the time [he] testified was much less than it is now,” upon reviewing a transcript of the testimony he provided at the trial 24 years ago, Fredheim noticed “some of the answers [he] provided in the transcript surprised [him] as they differ from [his] current memory of what happened.” Among other revelations noted by Fredheim: “I do not remember seeing Mr. Donovan standing next to or near Mr. McHugh,” and that there was no dying utterance by Raustein about his wallet being stolen — a key component of McEvoy’s felony murder theory. All of which helps confirm what Donovan’s been saying all along — that he neither helped orchestrate nor participated in the homicide:
There’s not much pride. If they said they’d give me an involuntary manslaughter, I’m not sure I’m guilty of that, but since I punched [Raustein], I would take it. It’s the pragmatic thing. I started the thing, I feel bad about it, but if you ask me if I had any idea that any of that was going to happen that night, and I know that’s all the law’s about, I didn’t. I don’t want to say I did. I still to this day do not admit to this crime. I did not do this.
Most people don’t understand the law. It’s so easy for someone to get caught up with [felony murder] … There are a lot of cases nobody even hears about … If my case wasn’t involved with MIT on a slow news week, it [wouldn’t have been so big]. But I see it all the time how the media catches on to a case. At the time, it was my case.
November 4, 2015
Hi, Team Joey Angels: I could actually feel the energy and your prayers while I sat in the courtroom. I saw a bright white aura surrounding the judge. Your prayers are reaching her! Please keep prayers coming for Joey and his attorney, Paul. Joe’s dad talked about having a gathering for Joey once he is free. Joey is personable, has a great sense of humor, and if you would like to discuss Einstein’s Theory of Relativity with him, feel free. You will love him. A million thanks for your support and prayers. Blessings and hugs, Carol
I wanted to interview Donovan in person this past Christmas Eve, or on Christmas Day. I don’t care much for the holidays anyway, and I figured that the timing might add color to my follow-up while I could perhaps offer my company during a rough time. Plus, there was an anniversary at hand; it was on December 24 two years ago when the highest court in Mass issued the landmark ruling that opened the door for Donovan’s freedom when they eliminated life sentences without parole for juveniles, past offenders retroactively included.
As it turned out, the yuletide visit couldn’t be arranged, but two days later I drove with Jason Pugatch, the documentarian chronicling Donovan’s plight for the past several years, to meet Donovan’s cousin Carol at the Fireside Grille in Middleboro, about 45 minutes south of Boston. The plan was to grab a bite there and then accompany Carol to Bridgewater Minimum nearby, but I refused to sign a form at the prison agreeing that I wouldn’t report anything from our conversation in the media. With Donovan getting out soon anyway, I figured it was best to play it safe. Before she left for Bridgewater, I asked Carol about the toll all this drama has taken on her:
I have had to really work hard at releasing and backing away from the worry. I’ve had medical [conditions] that have gotten a little bit worse. The visits take a lot out of me. But now we’re so much more hopeful that it’s easier. Even though I hate the thought of him coming out on parole, at least he can come to the house.
He called twice on Christmas Eve just to say have a Merry Christmas. They give them a couple of pieces of turkey, and some stuffing, and a little rosebud of cranberry sauce. This time I said to him, “Joey, this is going to be the last year that you’re in that damn place.”
January 28, 2016
Hi Team Joey Angels: Joe should be pre-released to Wyman, in Mattapan in January. Paperwork to be completed. 30–90 days in Wyman, then 1/2 way house for six months, looking for a job … Joe is anxious about release after nearly 24 years in prison. PLEASE pray for an easy transition to the outside world, and for PROTECTION from harm for Joe. Hugs and blessings, Carol
Despite his being granted parole in 2014, Donovan was not given an exact release date until last month. The specific course of his path from medium-security to minimum to parole and halfway programs also remained a mystery. This strikes me as the ultimate disregard for Donovan; besides the torture of not knowing when he’d reenter society, their arbitrary holding of him for so many days, weeks, months after the parole board’s decision exemplifies how little the lives of inmates are valued. None of which is news to Donovan:
I’m a fan of capitalism. But nobody’s life is really that important unless you have money. The more money and power you have, the more important you are in a capitalist society. They say that your life is important, but it really isn’t. What it comes down to is you might have some idealistic judges that will see that, but for the most part, even people who start out in the legal system bright-eyed and bushy-tailed come out cynical. It’s like the Byzantine Empire — it just turns into bureaucracy on top of bureaucracy. It’s just how the world works. I know my life doesn’t matter as much as somebody else’s. That being said, I think I have gotten more opportunities than some others because of my situation and the decisions I’ve made as far as getting media attention. And having people on my team rooting for me actually helps.
February 18, 2016
Hi All: Joe asked me to notify you that he will be transferred to another prison — Wyman pre-release, on Wednesday, March 2nd, and expects to be there for 30–90 days before being released to a 1/2 way house. He sounded quite sad and anxious tonight when he called. His caseworker said Joe’s wait for release was the longest wait he ever encountered. I’ll visit him Sunday if you have messages for him. Blessings, Carol
Writing Donovan’s story the first time compelled me to spend time in the following years investigating Mass incarceration. Of all the abominable things I learned throughout my research, the lack of substantial job and life-training classes stands out the most. In FY 2015, the Mass DOC appropriated less than 1 percent — just $1.1 million in a nearly $600 million department budget — on re-entry programs. Inmates like Donovan, who for most of his stay was believed to have no chance of ever walking free, are typically given even fewer opportunities to learn work and social skills. With penal purgatory looming in the form of outreach centers and halfway houses, I asked about the (lack of) preparation:
There’s nothing really happening. They gave me a computer course, but it’s like an old version of Microsoft Windows. It’s basically how to log on. It was a five-hour course — I mean, how much could you learn? I learned how to turn the computer on and off. There’s not much that goes on with that stuff. The guys who have a shorter, maybe four- or five-year sentence, they might be able to get into more programs. But they’re flimsy programs in terms of what you would need. They don’t teach you a real skill like they used to, like carpentry. They don’t really have that no more. Now you get your GED and that’s it. There are a lot of drug abuse programs, but that doesn’t fall into my category.
February 21, 2016
Hi, Team Joey Angels: SPECIAL prayers needed for overturning Joe’s LIFETIME PAROLE which is a horrible condition. Parole can put him back in prison in a heartbeat for numerous or imagined infractions. I mentioned before that if the parole officer even thinks he is going to commit an infraction, they can drag him back to prison. Someone, please wake me when this is over, and Joe Donovan is completely free. Blessings and hugs, Carol
On his first day of freedom since before his 18th birthday, Donovan was let out of Bridgewater Minimum. Reportedly handcuffed and shackled, he wasn’t allowed to have family or friends there for the big day. Instead Donovan was transported to Wyman, a “pre-release” center in Mattapan, in the same kind of caged wagon that’s carted him between a constellation of unwelcoming pens for his entire adult life. He was only allowed to bring one supermarket-sized bag of belongings with him, but Donovan probably had larger worries on his mind during the ride to Wyman. In a state where roughly one out of every 10 prison admissions stems from a parole violation, he’ll always have to worry about getting pulled back into a system that invests more in retention than it does in reentry.
March 2, 2016
Team Joey Angels: Joey was transferred to pre-release prison today. He called to ask his dad for a clock radio, clothing and new sneakers! Can’t imagine his feelings after 23+ years in prison! He will be the PROPERTY of the Department of Corrections or Parole Department for life unless he wins a new trial or is able to overturn lifetime parole. Please keep praying for him, Team Joey Angels. The Parole Department can whip him back to prison in a heartbeat. Joe began this journey with LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE! Your prayers are responsible for Joe getting to this point of freedom! There will be a hearing Monday, 3/28 @ 2. THANK YOU, and a million blessings to you and yours!
This story was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism in coordination with The Joe Donovan Project and Medium’s community-wide conversation about criminal justice reform.