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May 30, 2014

Two juvenile lifers plead for freedom for first time

BOSTON — Two Massachusetts men imprisoned since age 17 under a mandatory life sentencing law for young offenders pleaded for freedom yesterday during the state’s first parole hearings since its highest court struck down the law in December, part of a cascade of such legal moves around the country.

The men, Joseph Donovan, 38, and Frederick Christian, 37, stood in front of the state parole board pleading for a second chance at freedom. Both were convicted of felony murder charges for their part in separate killings, though neither killed anyone. They’re among 63 inmates in Massachusetts serving life without parole under the juvenile sentencing law.

Donovan was convicted for his participation in the 1992 robbery of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who died of stab wounds. He punched the student, Yngve Raustein, and said he was trying to show off in front of new friends by seeming tough.

“I will forever feel ashamed of the actions that night that resulted in the death of such a promising young man,” Donovan said at the hearing. “I was such a stupid kid,” he added, saying he was rash and impulsive and never thought about consequences.

The person convicted of stabbing Raustein was released from prison a decade ago.

In December, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that lifelong imprisonment for juveniles is a cruel and unusual punishment, saying scientific research showed that their brains were not fully developed.

The decision followed a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012, Miller v. Alabama, which struck down such mandatory life sentencing laws. A handful of states, including Hawaii, West Virginia and Texas, have followed suit, either through state court rulings or legislative action.

There are about 2,500 inmates serving such sentences nationally, and the two Massachusetts men appear to be among the first wave of them to seek their freedom since the Supreme Court decision. One Arizona man who was 15 when he was convicted of killing his mother and stepfather nearly a half-century ago was granted clemency by Gov. Jan Brewer in March.

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