The Downing Family’s Fight to Keep a Convicted Murderer Behind Bars
Erin Downing and her family fear that changes in how Massachusetts handles juvenile murderers will let her mother’s killer out of prison.
Erin Downing has been anxiously expecting a phone call from the state telling her that the teenager—now a man—who was convicted of stabbing her mother 98 times could sit before the parole board and ask to be released from prison. But to try to ensure it doesn’t happen, she has called on the community to rally behind her in the form of a petition that she plans to send to the Governor’s office.
Her mother, Janet Downing, was brutally murdered by her brother’s best friend, Edward O’Brien, in their Somerville home in 1995. O’Brien was 15-years-old at the time of the crime and was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole, after two years of court hearings and testimonies that tore her once tight-knit family apart.
But because of a December ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that now gives juveniles convicted of murder serving a mandatory life sentence a chance at parole, O’Brien’s case could go up for review.
“This decision…it has brought up so many emotions. We thought we wouldn’t have to deal with this again. I can’t believe we are dealing with this almost 20 years later,” said Downing. “He was sentenced to life in 1997, and the fact that we are fighting to keep him in jail is just insanity.”
The state’s Supreme Judicial Court decision, which struck down life sentences without parole for juveniles, followed the footsteps of the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that declares mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles unconstitutional.
The reversal includes those currently serving time, and could impact more than 60 inmates in Massachusetts who were convicted of first-degree murder before the age of 18. To be eligible for a parole hearing, they have to have served at least 15 years of their sentence. O’Brien falls in that category.
Downing said her family has been “on edge” ever since the court’s decision came to light last month, and now she anxiously awaits the phone call from the state, which is required to give her a 30-day notice prior to the hearing, letting her know that her mother’s killer can plead his case in an attempt to get parole.
“He’s absolutely on that list of juvenile defenders who will come up for parole. When it’s going to happen, we don’t know yet,” said Downing. “The thing about anybody that loses someone to homicide is you never, ever get closure. That wound is always there, and you just learn to live with it. But we did have justice; he was in jail and never getting out.”
She said this decision, however, is like stepping into a time machine that sends her family back to the day of the murder, and forces them to relive the nightmare of discovering that their mother was killed by a person they thought they knew.
“I knew him well. He was my brother’s best friend, and he lived across the street from me. There was no indication that this would happen. It’s almost like he was two different people,” she said. “The fact that at 15-years-old, you could stab your best friend’s mother 98 times—that was just some of her wounds. She had a rib snapped in half because it was done with such force. If you can do that at 15 and have no remorse and show no emotion, I can’t imagine what he would be like as a grown man after being in prison all of these years.”
Downing and her family recently started an online petition asking Governor Deval Patrick and the parole board to uphold O’Brien’s sentence. So far, the petition has collected more than 3,000 signatures from people in Somerville and all across the country. “The peace of mind that was once experienced is gone. And it’s absolutely heartbreaking,” the petition reads.
The murder of Janet Downing and the trial against O’Brien was a high-profile case in Massachusetts that led to rampant changes in the state’s criminal justice system, and in some ways set the precedent for a 1996 law that imposed strict sentences for juveniles being tried as adults for murder.
While Downing is fearful of O’Brien’s release, she said the petition has given her some encouragement to stay optimistic. “It’s going incredible. I’m blown away. It’s the power of social media, and it’s helped us reach so many people.”
Last week, Massachusetts District Attorneys Association President Jonathan Blodgett wrote a letter to state legislators asking lawmakers to implement at least a 35-year minimum sentence for juveniles convicted of murder before they can go up for parole, since the Supreme Judicial Court struck down the law that imposed the automatic life sentences.
“It is an understatement to say that victims’ families, whose loved ones were brutally taken from them and had believed they had some sense of finality, are devastated,” Blodgett wrote in the letter. “Therefore, the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association believes this decision is particularly burdensome to the families of the victims of juvenile murderers, as they are now subjected to the possibility that their loved ones’ killers will be released.”
Elected officials, who vowed to craft legislation around the idea, swiftly backed Blodgett’s request. Some bills, which vary in language, have already been filed on Beacon Hill but are awaiting committee hearings.
While if passed, 35 years would potentially keep O’Brien in jail for a longer period of time, Downing still doesn’t think it’s enough. “It’s great that the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association wants to make a change, but the fact that we have to go through this at all is an injustice,” she said.
James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University, predicts that even if O’Brien were to go before the parole board to ask for parole release, he doubts it would ever happen. “It’s extremely slim. It’s rather difficult for murderers to get paroled on their first, even second attempt,” Fox said. “If you look at the recent history on successes of parole releases after the first attempt, and the later attempt, the rate of release is rather low.”
Fox said he thinks that the parole board is going to be “very conservative about granting parole,” given the shakeup in the system in 2011.
“Add to that any case that’s a high-profile case that will have lots of media attention paid to it—in those situations, the hesitancy will probably be heightened,” he said. “There is a difference between being parole eligible and being released. Someone like Eddie O’Brien isn’t likely to have a parole release. He was the catalyst for the law change, and his notoriety will never be forgotten, I suspect.”
Regardless, Downing isn’t taking any chances, and will continue forward with the online petition and campaign.
“I hope people keep spreading it around and keep signing it. It’s eventually going to the parole board and to the governor. It’s something else to show them,” she said. “Thousands of people do not want him out of prison, they don’t want him out on parole. My family unfortunately has had to deal with this waiting game before. But you try and stay positive, and try and stay focused.”