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The punch that took two lives

Nearly 17 years ago, Joe Donovan initiated a tragic chain of events with a brutish act of machismo. But should he be in jail for life?
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  August 5, 2009

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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.


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.

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Related: Pressure rising, Stabbed in the back, Prison in turmoil, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Criminal Sentencing and Punishment, Led Zeppelin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology,  More more >
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Re: The punch that took two lives
Excellent Read!
By ENCRYPTED on 08/05/2009 at 7:20:40
Re: The punch that took two lives
Sorry - I stopped reading when I got to what the part with the cat. Perhaps he has gotten a bad break, but I have little sympathy for this guy. And it can't be denied that he played a significant role in the murder of the student.
By Rafael on 08/05/2009 at 8:25:44
Re: The punch that took two lives
Rafael - You truly embody all that's wrong with this planet. I'm glad that I researched this story for six months so that you could speed read a couple paragraphs without paying any attention whatsoever to the story line and then make a sweeping generalization. Someone should punch you in the face.
By Chris Faraone on 08/06/2009 at 9:48:53
Re: The punch that took two lives
Rafael's comment pissed me off so much I signed up for a username just to comment, but the reporter beat me to it...I mean, normally I assume people who are asses in the comments section don't translate exactly to real life, but it's a little harder to take after you finish reading a story where everyone- jurors, prosecutors, townsfolk, gownsfolk- seems to be guilty of rushed decisions and willful blindness.  One thing that really got me in the story was how Donovan spent four year in solitary confinement while they figured out that his prison fight was in self-defense.  Is this normal and accepted that a (seemingly) minor incident takes years to figure out and it doesn't matter if you're innocent or guilty because you're being punished for it during the process anyway?  
By twiffa on 08/06/2009 at 10:19:25
Re: The punch that took two lives
An excellent job on telling this sad story. As for the unfairness angle, I must say that despite the subjective and quite understandable emphasis on the several incongruencies and ironies in the story, it appears to be a pretty strong case of felony murder under the law as I understand it.  Maybe his lawyer could have done a better job distinguishing the punch from the beginning of the joitn venture felony, but I don't know, once you're that far down the road you are pretty much taking your chances.  Also, I agree that prosecutors in this state completely disregard their mandate to seek justice in order to put points on the board at the expense of human lives. As sympathetic as the story makes one feel toward Mr. Donovan, it is also true that there were at least two lives lost that night -- one of which was completely innocent.  One lesson here is: make sure your kids know that their actions have consequences, and how dangerous it can be to select the wrong friends.  17 is too young for kids to be running around wild with an attitude, fists and weapons and no judgement.  The story of Donovan's actions of that day are horrifying to me in themselves and in no way typical, I hope.  Sorry, that doesn't sound like what I want my teenage children to spend their time doing -- sounds more like a life that was already pretty much thrown away.  And by the way, walking up to someone you don't know and trying to knock them out with a punch, because you can and because you're pissed off,  is not a "minor incident" to me -- it is a gruesome act of brutality.  The kid could have died from that alone.  Still, that was a hell of a long time ago and it does make you wonder what the point of his lifelong incarceration is.
By landnsdad on 08/06/2009 at 10:57:54
Re: The punch that took two lives
hey landnsdad, if the 'minor incident' was quoting my post I was referring to the prison fight which resulted in four years in solitary while they decided it was in self-defense.  I agree that cold-cocking another person is brutal and we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Yngve Raustein would still be alive if not for Donovan.   But that doesn't put his punch in the same ballpark as knifing a guy who is down.  Given what is said about the joint venture felony being for cases where the possible outcome can be reasonably foreseen, I would think that if Donovan really didn't know about the knife this shouldn't qualify.  (After all, the prosecutor made a point of saying that Donovan had seen and handled the knife prior to the incident.)
By twiffa on 08/06/2009 at 12:08:31
Re: The punch that took two lives
yes the prosecutor made a point to say Joe saw and handled the knife, but the forensics say different as do witnesses.  Knocking someone out w/a punch for no reason is not something I want my kids going around doing either, but kids are kids (& whether you want them or approve of them doing something especially as teens is out of a parents hands) sure the punch started the altercation, but it did NOT kill anyone! & I dont think b/c he did punch Mr Raustein proves his life was heading down hill fast or was already wasted, he was only 17 - people, goals and lives change, This man deserves another shot,, he deserves to come home to his family & friends.  The killer (shon)  is (well was) out & I can only say I hope (although I doubt it does) stays in his head daily that he is the reason a young man is not here to succeed in life & in my opinion  he will have to pay & answer  someday for what he did to Mr Raustein  -- But Mr Joe Donovan should have his case heard by the govenor and should be a good case for commutation!! check out the petition ( to see the victims family comments, and take a minute to sign it if you agree Joe deserves a chance. 
By afriend on 08/06/2009 at 12:20:07
Re: The punch that took two lives
one more thing to add: nice job on the article, thanks for sharing this story !!
By afriend on 08/06/2009 at 12:21:13
Re: The punch that took two lives
A punch to the head hard enough that Donovan's fingers still hurt 17 years later could very easily have killed the victim--it is largely a matter of chance that it didn't. This was more than a shoving match or barroom argument where somebody slipped and cracked their skull open. Donovan sounds like he caught some rotten breaks in jail and I don't doubt he sincerely regrets his actions and wishes he chose very differently but Yngve Raustein never had a choice. There are plenty of people who get truly shafted by the system, but the only grand injustice I see here is that McHugh didn't go to the chair, let alone get released. 
By thesnob on 08/06/2009 at 1:28:49
Re: The punch that took two lives
Ok -- I will grant that I was hasty in my judgment on this article. And I apologize as I acknowledge that it is unfair to the author of the article to make a judgement on it after having read just the first page. I have read the article in full now, and I admit that there is more to Joe Donovan's story -- and it is more complex -- than I first thought. In fact, I will read it again. And my face is available.
By Rafael on 08/06/2009 at 1:36:21
Re: The punch that took two lives
Shameful response from Faraone to a critical post. "Someone should punch you in the face"? That's your response to a poster who dared to say he stopped reading your article? And the ridiculous opening line "You truly embody all that's wrong with this planet." was laughable. We have enough thin-skinned media members in this town Chris. Maybe since you were writing for the Phoenix you assumed you would receive nothing but "attaboys" from a liberal readership. I read the whole article Chris. I tend to be a "lock them up and throw away the key" guy. And I'm not convinced this guy wasn't headed toward a life of crime. He may deserve another chance (one the victim will never see) and he may be rehabilitated but he started the wheels in motion that night by being a tough guy. As someone said earlier, use this as an example to your kids about decisions in life. And Chris, try to take criticism or a different opinion without stooping to a tough guy response. Doesn't make you look much better than the subject of your article.
By Art Vandelay on 08/06/2009 at 3:11:01
Re: The punch that took two lives
I need to clear things up here, as I've received as much negative mail today in response to my comment (above) as I have general feedback about the feature. I don't regret my words or apologize - I thought it out beforehand, and I'm too stubborn. Furthermore - I do believe that one of society's underlying problems is that people are quick to speak loudly about things they know little about. But I am happy that I convinced Rafael to go back and read the whole story. As for the above commenter (Art Vandelay), I think it's obvious that I did not reply to Rafael simply because he "dared to say he stopped reading my article." I swung because he passed a judgment after admittedly not reading it. I'm not a typical reporter; if I subscribed to prescribed journalistic behavior I wouldn't be engaging readers on the comment board. On that note, thanks to all of you for taking the time to read the article.
By Chris Faraone on 08/06/2009 at 3:52:10
Re: The punch that took two lives
Hello Chris Faraone....I am the Eric that was mentioned in the article...I admittedly lost contact with Joey over the years and proved to be one of the worst friends anyone in his position could have. We hung out pretty much daily.....but once he was sent away I all but lost touch...and it's one of the things I wish I could change. If you could tell me whether or not he has access to the internet I'd appreciate it...maybe he has an email account that he could check?
By EricMac on 08/06/2009 at 8:05:29
Re: The punch that took two lives
Eric - please feel free to contact me at I will give you Joey's contact info. Also - you can find his family at 
By Chris Faraone on 08/06/2009 at 10:53:10
Re: The punch that took two lives
"Still insecure about backing down to the jogger minutes earlier, Donovan turned to the students, who had walked on about 20 feet, and demanded an apology. In a weak moment, Donovan was likely attempting to live up to stories he'd heard about his rugged merchant-marine grandfather and his great-grandfather, Johnny Donovan, a New England lightweight boxing champ from South Boston." Is this your perception of Mr. Donovan's emotions at the time, or were you paraphrasing what he told you was going through his head at the time?  I would wager that both the merchant-marine grandfather and boxing champ great-grandfather would be rolling in their graves if they knew that their descendant had turned out to be nothing more than a lying bully.  Maybe if Mr. Donovan had a shred of decency and had taken some accountability for his actions that night, he would have accepted the plea as rightfull punishment for being a stupid little fuckstick, and would be out of jail at this point.  Clearly, Mr. Donovan sees himself as the victim, and that sir is "all that's wrong with this planet."  Everyone wants to be the victim.  I was taught, growing up in Southie with a very similar socio-economic background to Mr. Donovan, that you were judged by the company that you keep.  It is unfortunate that a string of stupid decisions (hanging around with hoodlums, underage drinking, getting into a fight, running from the cops) ended in the death of one young man and an admittedly tragic future for Mr. Donovan.  However, his fate is not by any stretch of the imagination unjust.  He cannot and should not be held responsible morally for the actions of another, and I believe he never intended for anyone ot die that night.  He sealed his own fate though when he made another stupid decision and chose not to accept the plea, and to instead role the dice hoping to get off with less of a punishment for his actions.  I won't be joining any "save Joey" groups anytime soon because I personally think after reading your very well written and researched article that the kid is a super-douche who go everything in life that he deserves.  I hope all the other readers keep in mind that it was his individual choices that led him to where he is not only that night but in the months and years that followed.  Kudos to the prosecution team and I think that the only injustice is that all three of those animals aren't still locked in cages.  Oh, and just for reference, I never shed any tears for the East Bridgewater chick who took the paint ball to the eye a few years back during the post Sox game riots.  She was tragically stupid too.
By TaraEmily on 08/07/2009 at 12:51:36
Re: The punch that took two lives
I do believe that the defendant (Donovan) has served a long jail term.  However,  has anyone given thought to what the murdered students parents think or feel?  How would any of the readers who have made comments here feel if it were THEIR son who was senselessly murdered and robbed of life?  These things go both ways,  but I have a feeling that a good portion of the "outraged" people who have posted responses would want this kid Donovan to rot in jail if he suckered their son,  which was the catalyst to a stabbing.  It's easy to read his story and feel "bad" that he has served 17 years,  but there is a whole other side to this story,  a family that lost a son forever.  It's hard to say exactly how I feel.  That McHugh kid should be in jail for life,  there is no doubt about that ...... sounds like he may be headed in that direction with his narcotics arrest.  This Donovan kid certainly sounded like a punk at 17,  and if he had not been such a punk,  he would have laughed and kept walking when he bumped into the student.  But he had to be a tough guy and blind side the kid with a sucker punch.  The stabbing was not justified of course,  but hey,  Donovan's actions are what spurred everything else.  Let's not forget,  the students had already walked 20 feet when Donovan decided he wanted to be a tough guy and confront them.  It's not like McHugh ran after them.  It was Donovan's actions that put this whole chain of events into motion,  and because of that,  he has to pay.  The only question I have is,  has he already paid enough,  and if I put myself into the families shoes,  it's hard for me to say if he has.
By Stizzz on 08/07/2009 at 2:27:09
Re: The punch that took two lives
I am surprised by the harsh tone of many of these posts. A few facts seems to be lost in the hubbub:  1. Joe Donovan did express sincere remorse for his actions and the consequences. 2.  The family of the victim and the judge who sentenced him favor giving Donovan a 2nd chance 3. Donovan was essentially a juvenile when this happened. As such, the bottom line question is, does society favor a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" mentality for youthful offenders? Or should rehabilitation with a 2nd chance be part of the equation? Nationally, the trend is moving toward the latter. 4. Donovan had no intent to murder. The case record on this was clear. Ergo, Donovan is guilty as a murderer even though he had no mindset to kill. First degree murder, by law, requires a mindset that the guilty person intended to kill, even if that idea happened in a second. The only exception is the felony murder, or joint venture theory, which was the basis for Donovan's conviction. 5.  Donovan arguably played the smallest role in the crime, and certainly a lesser role than the brutal killer who stole Raustein's life. Yet he paid the harshest penalty. No matter how you feel about this case, it shows that actions carry consequences. This story should be shared with every high school student in the state. As for Donovan, count me among those who say his case should be reviewed by the proper authorities. I see no sense in locking up a person for life who never intended to kill, never killed, and whose conviction rested upon the testimony of a fellow perp who cut a deal to save his own skin. 17 years for a punch is pretty potent punishment. Life without parole for a punch? Wow ... it seems so odd.      
By Joe Newshound on 08/07/2009 at 3:50:45
Re: The punch that took two lives
To those who never seem to have a problem coming up with answers, I’d like to pose a few questions. But first I’d like to say how grateful I am that none of the stupid things I did as a teen came back to haunt me the way Joe Donovan’s one punch did to him. And how grateful I am that my one and only son was spared from having to pay with his life for his, or any of his friends’, foolish actions. As a scared teen/thug I carried switchblade knives, brass knuckles, and guns, went looking for gang fights, and watched the idiots I was with intimidate and punch innocent bystanders. Dozens of aimless nights could have ended tragically. Fortunately, none did. I went on to become a teacher, a successful businessman, and move to the suburbs. My son attended exclusive private schools, but still managed to find cohorts who turned out to be almost as stupid as my young “friends” were. So, while my heart definitely goes out to the victim’s family, I’d like to know... How many parents reading this would be gung ho and self-righteous about locking their sons away for life for one punch? How many parents would think it was fine for the prosecutors to manipulate the evidence (break the law) not only to convict their sons, but to further their political careers? Instead of wasting taxpayers’ money rotting in jail, how many people think Joey could be doing a lot more good for society by visiting high schools in an attempt to help the countless misdirected, lost, and even stupid teenage males understand the very real consequences of foolish actions and the insanity of desperately seeking peer approval? If Joey were able to go out and save two lives (one killer and one victim) would the sanctimonious phonies “forgive” him and consider it adequate penance? Does “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?” make any sense to hypocrites?
By Just Wondering on 08/08/2009 at 10:23:38
Re: The punch that took two lives
I just wanted to say that your article is very well written and researched. I came to this site because I read your article about the Narcicysts album and there was a link to this article so I read it and signed the petition. People change as the comment above shows, I think. Thank you for the article from Germany.
By Leon Goertz on 08/08/2009 at 2:25:45
Re: The punch that took two lives
Mr. Donovan made the initial contact and a innocent man died. Not an "unfortunate situation", it was criminal. Anyone walking along Memorial Drive that evening could have been killed by this criminal act. That others beat the system does dot justify the release of this individual.
By brent99 on 08/09/2009 at 1:52:24
Re: The punch that took two lives
Look up the "Support Joe Donovan!" group on facebook! Let's help this man take back the life our ineffective court system took away.
By Yurkie on 08/09/2009 at 2:08:42
Re: The punch that took two lives
Wow...I was so moved by this article and am convinced that Donovan received a bum deal, to put it mildly. But how disappointing to read Faraone's "someone should punch you in the face" comment. Here he writes an article that, in part, warns us about the awful unintended consequences of violent behavior, and then he promotes violence with his way-over-the-top response to someone who had the temerity to jump to a conclusion after reading a mere two paragraphs of his story. Very sad. You've lost my respect, Chris, and, frankly, you've undermined the impact of the six months of research that your poured into that article. As a former journalist, I find myself almost as disturbed by your violent comment as I do the injustice that's been meted out to Donovan.
By jostyn on 08/09/2009 at 2:16:33
Re: The punch that took two lives
After reading this story in print and being very impressed, I then made the mistake of reading this comments board.  Mr. Faraone, you should strongly consider adopting "prescribed journalistic behavior" and, in the future, not engage readers on boards such as this. I cannot put it any better than jostyn did above; you've lost my respect, undermined your months of research and prompted me to ignore anything you may write in the future.  
By StevieC on 08/09/2009 at 4:33:49
Re: The punch that took two lives
Outside of the morbid sadness and sense of loss that all reasonable minded folks could muster up for friends and family of both the Donovan and the Raustein's the only real clear undiluted sense of outrage that I'm left with is directed at the Commonwealth. We can discuss Donovan's culpability all day long, and it certainly is a very provocative case, but in the end I'd want to discuss sentencing parity. Even if you believe Donovan was/is a reckless punk of the worst degree, it seems so randomly unfair that he gets life for a sucker punch and the actual murderer is out and free to screw up again (which doesn't help Donovan's case any). How much time is enough for a brutal, uncalled for, and savage street assault? 2 years? OK. 5 years- approaching harsh, but Ok. 17 years is a little off the map in my opinion. I realize that Donovan's unwarranted actions caused the death of an innoccent, but where do we start tracing and then dismissing the ripple effect that we all have on each other's lives? I for one say as soon as we as individuals take actions on our own. Wasn't Donovan's knife, wasn't him doing the stabbing, why is his sentence harsher than "real" murderers? Even if for arguments sake we say that Donovan was indeed the murderer, the Commonwealth is saying "too bad he didn't plea out, now he does more time". Ridiculous. Sentencing criminals shouldn't be like playing the lottery. Honestly reading that Donovan's lawyer was outmatched made me think more of a horse race than a murder trial. I'm sure many "real" second degree murderers have been released from jails after serving 17 years. It's hard to accept that a perfect storm of random legal mumbo jumbo and local Cambridge politics has caused this guy to fall into the cracks like this. Makes me wonder how many other prisoners are in comparably baffling situations sans articles in the Phoenix advocating for them.
By jtothea on 08/10/2009 at 7:59:12
Re: The punch that took two lives
They call jailbirds "con men" for a reason: they're experts at conning people. In this case, Joe Donovan has conned the reporter and his own family into believing that he got a bum deal. Sorry, but I'm not buying it. This man hit a much smaller college student so hard that day that his hand still hurts 17 years later! That was not a shove or a push or even a weak punch - that kid could have died from that one punch alone. Even if Donovan didn't stick the knife in, he participated in the events and he set the wheels in motion. Not just that - but how do we even know he's telling the truth? Of course he'll tell the reporter and his family that he didn't know about the knife and that he didn't mean to kill that kid, but the only person who really knows the truth is Joe, and he's in jail and desperately wants to get out. People in jail will say and do anything to get out because it's a horrific place. I feel bad that this reporter got taken for a fool from a con man. It is also interesting that the reporter didn't get the other side of the story. It is very unbalanced, and even despite that, he still does a bad job of convinving me and more than half the posters on this comments section that this kid deserves to be let out of jail. He could have pleaded guilty, taken responsiblity for his actions and apologized in open court to the family. He failed to do that, and now he's in jail for life. He made many bad choices, and this is the consequence.
By SassySarah on 08/11/2009 at 3:06:39
Re: The punch that took two lives
If you have a comment about the article or Joe Donovan, then please leave that below.If you have a comment about me (the writer, Chris Faraone), and how unprofessional my message board comments were, please proceed to this link:  //
By Chris Faraone on 08/12/2009 at 2:39:01
Re: The punch that took two lives
Amen to brent99. They participated in a violent actvity that directly lead to someone's death.  I'm outraged all three aren't in prison. 
By jamesj on 08/12/2009 at 2:56:54

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