Cambridge man granted parole in 1992 MIT murder case; family ‘elated’
By his own admission, it was a stupid decision.
Cambridge resident Joe Donovan was 17 when he and two friends assaulted two MIT students one night in 1992. One of his friends pulled out a knife, and Yngve Raustein lost his life.
Twenty-two years later, both of Donovan’s co-defendants have been released from prison. On Thursday, Aug. 7, the state Parole Board agreed to set Donovan free. His release will come after a year in a low-security corrections facility and a mandatory six months of participation in one of the prison’s rehabilitation programs.
It was a very happy day for Donovan’s father, Joe Donovan Sr., who said he was “elated” to hear the news.
“Tears came to my eyes,” Donovan Sr. said. “It’s the best news I’ve probably ever heard in my life.”
It was a day that Donovan Sr. never thought would come. After waiting more than two decades, losing three appeals and getting no response on a commutation from Gov. Deval Patrick, Donovan Sr. thought his son’s odds at being released from prison were nonexistent.
Joe Donovan, now 38, would have spent the rest of his entire adult life in jail if it weren’t for a December 2013 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision ruling it unconstitutional to issue mandatory life sentences for juveniles without the possibility for parole. Under the ruling, prisoners sentenced to life become eligible for parole after 15 years.
On Thursday, the six-member board issued a unanimous vote granting Donovan a second chance.
“Donovan has been severely punished by serving 22 years for a stabbing murder that he did not intend or commit,” said board Chairman Josh Wall. “He intended and committed a robbery, for which he has been adequately punished. His involvement in the robbery created a chain of events that resulted in a murder and he has fairly received punishment for that tragic event.”
Ingrid Martin, Donovan’s lawyer, said her client was “happy” and “very grateful” for the decision.
“He’s grateful for everyone who helped get him to this place, and now he knows it’s on him when he gets out,” Martin said.
It was critical for him to get the support of Raustein’s family, Donovan Sr. said of his son.
“Even they thought – (Raustein’s) mother and siblings – that it he got a raw deal,” Donovan Sr. said. “He deserved to do some time, but not as long as he’s done. The other two guys have been out of the system for the last 10 years.”
Donovan Sr. said he spoke with Raustein’s mother at Donovan’s May 29 Parole Board hearing, where she encouraged the board to release him.
“I and my mother have supported the release and are relieved that it seems to finally be over, and Joe can start his life anew,” Raustein’s brother, Dan-Jarle Elmersønn Køhler Raustein, told the Chronicle.
At his parole hearing on May 29, Donovan told the board he was out with his friends, Cambridge residents Shon McHugh, who was 15 at the time, and Alfredo Velez, one night in 1992. He was “acting stupider than usual.”
“They were drinking; they wanted more and I wanted to drink,” Donovan said.
The trio went to a liquor store, but weren’t able to buy any beer. They were walking down Memorial Drive when Donovan said they started screwing around, pushing each other, when they bumped into Raustein and his friend, Arne Fredheim. Donovan demanded an apology. When Raustein responded in Norwegian, Donovan said he got angry and punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground.
Donovan said Velez demanded a wallet from Fredheim, and he saw McHugh standing over Raustein.
“I could see only his back,” Donovan said of McHugh. “I didn’t know (McHugh) stabbed him. I learned about the stabbing about five minutes later after we ran to Boston. I saw (McHugh) wiping blood off the knife. I didn’t know he had a knife.”
Velez ended up pleading guilty to manslaughter and two counts of armed robbery and testified against Donovan and McHugh. He was sentenced to serve concurrent terms of 12-20 years in prison for each conviction, and was released on parole in 2000.
McHugh’s case remained in juvenile court, and he was sentenced to 20 years in the custody of the Department of Youth Services, but was released after serving 11 years.
Path to Rehabilitation: ‘A conscious decision to change’
Wall said Donovan’s actions were consistent with “impulsive juvenile behavior, rather than hardened criminal conduct.” Although Donovan had several violent incidents in prison, including the assault of a corrections officer, which resulted in a four-year-long stint in the Disciplinary Detention Unit, Wall said Donovan demonstrated actions that led to his reform.
While in the disciplinary unit, Donovan said he had time to reflect on his behavior and began reading more and drawing. He helped other inmates research case law in the prison’s law library, and told the board he had become more empathetic.
“I was quick to seek a violent outcome. If violence came my way, I did not turn from it,” Donovan told the board. “I thought a lot about that and realized that I didn’t think about other people. I didn’t see them as living, thinking people until my early 20s. … I made a conscious decision to change. Around 2000, I started to see I was doing dumb stuff and causing hurt, and I changed my thought process.”
Asked what accomplishment he was most proud of during his incarceration, Donovan told the board, “I entered an art contest called Peace Project to help people in Sierra Leone. I won the contest.”
Wall said Donovan chose an unusual route for rehabilitation since he didn’t participate in many of the prisons’ educational or institutional programs. But, Wall said it was a simpler path to reentry into society because he did not actually “commit, intend, encourage, or foresee the stabbing that caused the victim’s death.”
As of Friday morning, Martin said Donovan had already been accepted into one of the prison’s rehabilitation programs for prisoners. She said he hadn’t been able to participate in the past because of limited space, and the administration prioritizes prisoners who are reentering society the soonest.
“If you’re serving a life sentence … you go to the bottom of the waiting list,” Martin said. “Now that he’s eligible for parole, I’m hopeful the (Department of Corrections) will do its part and put him into programs.”
With the end in sight, Donovan Sr. said he is looking forward to doing things he couldn’t for the past 22 years.
“Simple things, like going out to eat at a restaurant,” Donovan Sr. said, adding, “It’s especially hard since I know he’s a good kid. I’m not saying he’s an angel. He threw the first punch that started the altercation … but this is killing him, too. He knows an innocent kid got killed over this, and it bothers him. It’ll probably bother him for the rest of his life.”
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said in a statement that the Parole Board’s decision was “a complex and difficult one,” and advocated for a structured release conditioned on a successful step-down transition.
“Our thoughts are with Yngve Raustein’s family at this time,” Ryan said. “They believed that Mr. Donovan should be granted parole and we hope this decision gives them the closure they sought and deserve.”
Reflecting on his son’s release, Donovan Sr. said he, too, couldn’t help but think about the Raustein family.
“I’m really thankful for them for having the compassion and forgiveness they’ve had,” Donovan Sr. said. “When your son dies the way he died, and to have the heart to say that my son should be out now, that to me speaks well of them. I don’t know in my heart if I could be as forgiving as them if it was the other way around.”