HARD TIME After almost 17 years behind bars, Joe Donovan's spirits are still high, despite increasingly slim odds he'll ever be released.
When he was 17 years old, Joseph Donovan made the first of two stupid, and even reckless, mistakes. On the evening of September 18, 1992, in a brutish act of machismo, the East Cambridge native and minor-league delinquent punched out Norwegian MIT student Yngve Raustein. Tragically, seconds after he flattened the unsuspecting Norseman (and unbeknownst to Donovan), Raustein was set upon by a sociopathic acquaintance of Donovan's, who stabbed him to death.
Though the remorseful Donovan, by his own account then and now, acted like "an idiot" on that warm late-summer evening, and as inhumane as his actions that night were, he is not a murderer. Still, the quandary he found himself in led to his second mistake: Donovan spurned a plea deal with the Middlesex District Attorney and opted to go to trial to clear himself of any connection to the murder. Had he taken the deal, he would have been released last year (about five years after the actual murderer, Shon McHugh, was himself released). Instead, Donovan fought the law and lost. For that mistake, almost 17 years later, under the felony-murder rule — also known as the joint-venture doctrine, which holds all culprits equally guilty if a homicide occurs during the commission of a felony — Donovan is still wearing a gray jump suit at the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.
Donovan, now 34, has several advocates working on his behalf, but, as one family friend puts it, his chances of receiving a new trial are as likely as a quarterback completing a 100-yard Hail Mary pass — even though the judge who handed him his sentence now believes it is unjust. Donovan realizes that, though he was an aggressive thug that afternoon, unless he can get the justice system to look at his case, which it has thus far been unwilling to do beyond the standard appeals process, he will spend the rest of his life in jail for punching someone in the face.
NOT JUST ANOTHER WALK IN THE PARK
The morning of Friday, September 18, 1992, started with minor heartbreak for Joe Donovan. His summer sweetheart, Liza, dumped him following an argument at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, where the two were first-semester seniors. The break-up was hurtful, but Donovan was charming enough to easily befriend girls, and rebounded immediately, making plans to meet a girl named Amy after school. Their later rendez-vous at her apartment featured typical teenage behavior; the two watched television, smoked a joint, and fooled around until Donovan walked home for dinner.
Donovan's family on his mother's side congregated every Friday evening. His grandmother — who lived above the apartment that he and his mother, Mary, rented — was the house cook, and every week his aunt and uncle joined them for dinner. That autumn evening, they ate spaghetti and meatballs with shrimp sauce. Donovan still remembers it vividly nearly two decades later, because it was the last meal he had with relatives at a proper dining-room table.
After dinner, Donovan laid down for what he intended to be a quick nap. He had promised to call some friends around 7 pm but overslept. When he woke up at 8 pm and couldn't reach anyone — not Kevin, not Eric, not Robert — he walked into the dusk to find them. He knew that his homeboys were not at a dance happening at Rindge and Latin — that wasn't their scene — but that was his only lead.
Donovan's first stop was Costa Lopez Taylor Park, his regular hangout just steps away from his Charles Street home. He had spent most of the recent summer months with his father, Joe Sr., just over I-93 in Charlestown, but Donovan still thought he knew where his friends might be hanging. With no luck at Taylor, he walked one block to Hurley Park, and then another block and a half to Ahearn Field, behind Kennedy Longfellow Elementary School on Spring Street. There, he ran into fellow East Cambridge natives Alfredo Velez and Shon McHugh (who Donovan claims he barely knew) drinking 40-ounce bottles of beer.
Though McHugh was a little more than a year younger than Donovan — and a mere 120 pounds, or 50 pounds lighter than Donovan — he was hardly intimidated by bigger guys. A few months before, the five-foot, two-inch sophomore staved off a group of kids who jumped him at an East Cambridge party, and days later bought a knife at Faneuil Hall for protection. Among friends, McHugh was known as an insecure street punk with a Napoleon complex; he earned that reputation two years earlier by assaulting a man with a metal bicycle seat when the victim had caught him stealing tire-valve caps, an act that landed him on probation. He was also known by some to have an amoral disregard for life; his first victim was a cat that he threw into the air and caught on his pocket blade.