If You’re Sentenced to Life as a Juvenile, What Does It Take to Get Parole?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 11 2014 12:16 PM

“Where Do You Think That Rage Came From?”

To get parole, people sentenced to life as juveniles must reckon with their pasts.

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In other states, including Massachusetts, these sentencing determinations are in the hands of parole boards. Often appointed by governors, board members can be exquisitely sensitive to reflecting badly on their bosses. The ghost of Willie Horton may forever haunt the Massachusetts board. More recently, the board got into trouble for granting parole to lifer Dominic Cinelli, who then shot and killed a police officer in a botched armed robbery in 2010. Gov. Deval Patrick forced five of the six sitting parole board members to resign the following year. Parole rates dropped precipitously after that.

In deciding whether to give an inmate like Christian a second chance, many parole boards consider the severity of his original crime, and the reasons for it, at least as heavily as whether, and how much, he has changed in the decades since. “The parole board always tries to figure out what motivated someone to commit a crime—why did they do it?” says Patricia Garin, a Boston criminal defense attorney who specializes in parole.

Before Christian’s hearing, the board heard from Joseph Donovan, whose case has garnered media attention as an example of harsh sentencing: At 17, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for throwing an ill-fated punch. Last month, he shuffled into his hearing, balding and thick around the middle at 38. “I was such a stupid kid,” he told the parole board of his teenage self.

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As a lanky 17-year-old with a dark-haired pompadour, Donovan was out on a Friday night, looking for beer with some kids from his Cambridge, Massachusetts, neighborhood, when two exchange students brushed past him on the sidewalk. Donovan’s bluster and posturing—don’t you say excuse me?—quickly escalated when Donovan threw a punch so forceful that it broke his hand and knocked Yngve Raustein to the ground. While Donovan nursed his injured hand, his 15-year-old friend Shon McHugh pulled out a knife and, unprovoked, stabbed 21-year-old Raustein to death. Tried as a juvenile, McHugh served 10 years of a 20-year sentence. A third friend they were with, Alfredo Velez, testified against Donovan in exchange for a reduced sentence; he too served 10 years.  

But Donovan was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule. At Donovan’s hearing, the parole board asked him the obvious questions about his violent behavior. “Where does this punch come from?” asked one member. “Where do you think that rage came from the night that you punched the victim so hard that you broke your own hand?” asked another.  

“I wanted to project a tough guy image—to be the man,” Donovan told the board. “It’s a childish, stupid thing, to even have that thought.”

In the last 15 years, Donovan has dedicated himself to reading and artwork, and he has been involved in no violent incidents in prison. But the early part of his sentence was marked by fights and assaults resulting in a cumulative seven years in solitary confinement. At his hearing, he also had to explain this part of his record. “When I was first sent to [prison], I was scared and confused. I made a series of poor decisions. I always wound up in the hole,” he said. There in solitary confinement, “I realized I let other people dictate my actions. I let events spin out of control. I had to step up and take responsibility for my actions. Because, at the end of the day, they’re the only thing I can control in this life.”

Joe Donovan told the board precisely the kind of story that Miller is meant to account for: He said he went into prison an impulsive, self-centered kid and grew up to be a reflective, empathetic man. An adult. “The fact is, that night, now, who I was back then, is so far removed from who I am today,” Donovan said. “I can’t believe I ever did that.” The parole board has yet to make a decision about his case. He’s waiting to find out if he’ll ever escape his 17-year-old self.

Beth Schwartzapfel is a freelance journalist who covers the criminal justice system. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, the American Prospect, and the Boston Review. Follow her on Twitter.

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