PBS Need to Know
The Supreme Court ruled last month that juveniles can no longer be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes. Need to Know looks at the case of Joe Sullivan, who was convicted to life in jail at the age of 13.
(NECN: Brad Puffer) – It was 1992. A murder of an MIT exchange student by a Cambridge teenager fueled tensions between the city and university. But of the three Cambridge teenagers involved in the fight that night, only one remains in prison. Now an effort is underway to ask the Governor to commute his sentence. And as NECN’s Brad Puffer found out, he has found support from some unlikely people.
Joe Donovan is just 33 years old, and has already spent more than half his life behind bars. He is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.
Joe Donovan, Convicted of Murder: “You’re a kid your hoping its all a dream you know like oh man maybe I’ll wake up in your bed and it will all be over I am still hoping for that but its not the case you know.”
Donovan is one of three teenagers convicted in the stabbing death of an MIT student from Norway back in 1992.
Joe Donovan: “It was me being an idiot punching a kid but not it my wildest dreams did I think that was going to turn into this.”
On that Friday night in September, Donovan says he was walking down Memorial Drive on the edge of campus. He was walking with two other teenagers from the neighborhood, teenagers he apparently did not know well. Donavan says he literally bumped into a young man speaking in another language.
Joe Donovan: “I said what the hell was that? And I heard him laughing.”
Donovan admits he started the fight. The punch broke his hand. But 15 year-old Shon McHugh pulled the knife and stabbed Yngve Raustein, killing him. Donovan claims he did not even know Raustein was stabbed until the group of boys had run away.
Joe Donovan: “He’s wiping something off and it’s a knife and I said what you are you doing and I said did you stab someone?”
Police said a wallet was stolen during the fight, that the teenagers had planned to steal from student’s lockers. Donovan was charged with felony murder – the same as first degree murder – because the murder happened “in the commission or attempted commission of a crime”.
Joe Donovan: “I didn’t kill anybody so who would think you could be charged with murder. I even ask him how do you charge all the people and he started telling me its joint venture we just charge everybody involved. And I am like how does that work? And he’s like hey it’s how the law goes you know.”
Donovan quickly learned that if prosecutors could prove he knew about the knife, the robbery plan and was willing to help, the murder charge could apply to him under the joint venture theory of law. These are facts that to this day Donovan denies he ever knew.
Joe Donovan: “I had no idea that any of this stuff happened because who would do something like that it’s kind of crazy.”
Shon McHugh, the teen who murdered Raustein was tried as a juvenile. He spent less than 11 years behind bars. The other teenager, Alfredo Valez, testified against Donovan at trial as part of a plea deal. He was released after serving less than a decade, is now married and has children.
Judge Robert Barton, Retired, Middlesex Superior Court: “When you look at what happened to the co-defendants in this this case it is unfair to have him doing any more time than he has done.”
Judge Robert Barton oversaw Donovan’s trial. He spent 22 years on the bench, sat through more than 100 murder cases. Now retired, he says this is the one case that sticks out.
Judge Robert Barton: “I see where a Martorano who gave evidence against an FBI agent who is a self-proclaimed assassin hired gun killer. He’s walking the street after doing 10 years he’s walking the street going to get a movie offer and Joe Donovan who is the least involved in my humble opinion in a felony murder is still doing time that’s not fair that’s not equitable.”
And because Donovan had just turned 17 years old – it meant he was tried as an adult.
Judge Robert Barton: “If this happened a couple weeks or months beforehand he would be treated as a juvenile he would be out on the street by now. ”
As Judge Barton looks over his notes from the trial- something else jumps out at him.
Judge Robert Barton: “Went to jury at 4pm on Oct 27th. Next day at 2pm verdict is back. They weren’t out long. They had to have had lunch. That’s not a hell of a lot of deliberations.”
Carolyn Butterworth, Juror: “It disturbed me for years and it still disturbs me.”
Carolyn Butterworth was one of those jurors. She was also one of several jurors with serious reservations about a guilty verdict. She is speaking publicly about the case for the first time.
Carolyn Butterworth: “Whether we thought he did it or didn’t do it it didn’t; matter what mattered is if someone died during an armed robbery it was murder. That was the law but in my heart he wasn’t guilty of murder.”
There was no option for manslaughter or a lesser charge. The jury was sequestered and wasn’t going home until a verdict was reached. Butterworth says many jurors had young children and were eager to return home.
Carolyn Butterworth: “You know you kind of had to turn because if you don’t turn we were never going home, and I had no idea we didn’t have to come up with a verdict we could have had a hung jury I don’t know how long it would last but there were many people who didn’t want to go back to that hotel room.”
So while there were questions over who had stolen the wallet and who knew. Whether the testimony of the key witness had been truthful. Those questions did not change the verdict.
Carolyn Butterworth: “Did I think the kid stole the wallet? No. Did he have a knife? No”
After less than a day of deliberating the jury found Donovan guilty of felony murder.
Carolyn Butterworth: “Did you know going in that when you convicted him of felony murder it would automatically be life without a parole? No I did not and the people in our jury pool I remember people saying oh he will get out in a few years, people said that.”
Now Butterworth looks back, wishing she had been older, had spoken up more, had stood her ground.
Carolyn Butterworth: “I feel there is an injustice I don’t know if he should be in jail I don’t know if he ever should have gone to jail.”
Joe Donovan Sr., Father: “I don’t think they really cared about justice they cared about conviction.”
Donovan’s father, Joe Sr., continues to relive the night of the murder, the choices made, the trial, and the conviction that sent his son to prison for life.
Joe Donovan Sr.: “I’m depressed. It’s been hard doing this for this long especially knowing he doesn’t deserve what he got.”
He also knows it could have been different had Joe just pled down to a lesser charge.
Joe Donovan Sr.: “They offered him second degree but he said Dad all I did was throw a punch, I don’t want to be known as a murderer for the rest of my life.”
Now Joe is working with several friends and advocates to ask the Governor to commute Donovan’s life sentence. A commutation hasn’t happened in Massachusetts since Governor William Weld held office. But he still holds out hope.
Joe Donovan Sr.: “If the Governor gives me a few minutes of his time and he looks at this case I am sure he would say this isn’t right.”
Even the family of Yngve Raustein apparently agrees. They would not speak directly to NECN, but referred us to a petition they signed for Donovan’s release, saying quote “the life without parole sentence was way too harsh”, and “he should be given a new chance.”
Joe Donovan: “They have a lot of heart you know, to forgive. I hurt his whole family probably hurt the science community the guy was a genius.”
Donovan says he wrote to the Raustein family so they would know he feels remorse for his actions.
Joe Donovan: “There was no way I could have ever known that what I did that it would lead to someone, their son dying, that was not my intention and I feel bad about it everyday.”
Donovan now spends a lot of time doing pencil drawings. He once had dreams of becoming an EMT. He now just dreams of being with his family, holding a job, outside of prison walls.
Joe Donovan: “It’s an existence I’m not sure I have a real life here. Do you believe you will get out one day? I hope it. I would like to believe it. I hope it.”
But it will take a Governor’s action to make that happen. Donovan’s attorneys will submit a formal request in September. More than 50 requests for commutation were denied even a hearing last year. But Donovan hopes maybe his case will be different.
NECN also contacted former Attorney General Tom Reilly. He was the District Attorney at the time Joe Donovan was convicted.
He declined comment and referred us to the Middlesex District Attorney’s office. They also chose not to comment for this story.