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.

By | Boston Daily |
A 1995 file photo of Edward O'Brien on trial via Associated Press

A 1995 file photo of Edward O’Brien on trial via Associated Press

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.”

  • billy boy

    I would like to sign Erin’s petition. How do I do this???

    • Steve Annear

      Hey Billy, you can click the blue highlighted sentence at the top of the article, and that will take you to the petition.

  • Jim Harrington

    Democrats have a history of being soft on crime. You get what you vote for Massachusetts. You voted for democrats that appointed soft judges. You get no sympathy from me.

    • Sally

      You can’t blame the whole state for the mistake of the majority.. There are plenty of us who didn’t make the mistake who are forced to live with the fallout..

    • jake481

      Oh F off. We don’t need your sympathy. We’re doing just fine here in Boston. Stay in whatever redstate shithole you live in. We’ll all be happier.

  • Mumbles

    “Dateline” did a whole show on this case and concluded that the evidence was very shaky. News articles at the time alluded to problems she had involving her kids and ex-husband.

    The only reason this kid was tried as an adult was because Weld was running for Senate and wanted to look tough on crime so he rammed through a law requiring juveniles accused of murder to be tried as adults.

    I hope O’Brien gets out. I’m not sure he did it, and even if he did, he’s spent enough time in prison.

    • ldallas13

      Link to this Dateline episode? If not video, then surely some link of its broadcast exists. Actually, it doesn’t. Neither does the evidence you mentioned. Take your revisionist history BS back to Prospect Hill.

      • Mumbles

        Do you know how to use Google? There are articles that allude to the Dateline episode. Sorry, I didn’t keep the video for you. I just remember watching it because I always thought this story was fishy and my suspicions were confirmed. The physical evidence was tainted. Much was made of O’Brien’s physical appearance and awkwardness. There were issues with the water in the neighborhood that night so if O’Brien had murdered her it would have been hard for him to wash the blood off in the time between the murder and when his friends/family saw him.

        • John Davidson

          “There were issues with the water in the neighborhood that night”….LOL….HYSTERICS

          • Mumbles

            Hey John Davidson, I remember you from “That’s Incredible” – hair and teeth. You make a better cheeseball television personality than a lawyer. Read the articles. What about Downing’s acrimonious divorce? What about the evidence tainted by the cops when they searched the O’Brien’s house? The fact is, even if he did it – he’s done his time. Our society is better than one that locks up kids for the rest of their lives, regardless of the hate and viciousness of the Downing family.

          • John Davidson

            O’ Brien cheerleaders defy logic…”that kid” stabbed a woman how many times and you want him to walk the streets again?

          • John Davidson

            Hey, you can put sentences together…Now, Stop trying to blame the Downing family for the murderous actions of precious “Eddie”…

          • Paula Flaherty

            He hasn’t even been in jail for 25 years! Not enough time for murder,planned murder no less! If it was your wife or daughter whose life was taken by this psycho I bet u would feel much differently! I guarantee u u would want him to remain behind bars for the rest of his life!

          • Paula Flaherty

            And mumbles why r u even on this page to defend a psycho? He stalked and planned to murder Janet downing and he needs to stay in jail if u love the psycho so much why don’t u go to the jail and cuddle.

    • kellymitch

      Um…stabbed 98 times? Unless he didn’t do it, I don’t see how he wouldn’t be tried as an adult.

    • John Davidson

      “The defendant developed a preoccupation with the victim during the year prior to her death.   He watched her closely, sometimes through a telescope from his bedroom.   He frequently asked Ryan and Paul Downing, Ryan’s brother, about their mother’s activities and told Ryan that he had watched her undress.   The defendant remarked to several of his friends that he thought she was a lesbian.” – See more at: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ma-supreme-judicial-court/1062540.html#sthash.vqT7uGsk.dpuf

    • John Davidson

      “At about 9:20 P.M., three boys arrived at the Downing home looking for Ryan. They were friends of the defendant as well.   They knocked at the front door and called out for Ryan, but there was no answer.   One of the boys, Marco Abreu, heard a loud noise coming from the back yard, as if something were falling through tree branches.   They heard rustling and the sound of branches breaking in the bushes behind the house.   They knocked at the back door, but received no answer.   One boy, John Fitzpatrick, walked to the top of Hamlet Street, which bordered the Downing’s rear yard.   He saw the defendant crouching in some bushes and then saw him jump out onto Hamlet Street.   Fitzpatrick called out to the defendant, but received no  response.   Abreu, who was further up the street and only twenty feet from the defendant, also called out to him.   The defendant’s hands were by his side, with fists clenched.   As he passed under a streetlight, he turned and faced Abreu.   His eyes were bulging and he was laughing.”   He then turned away and walked down Hamlet Street. – See more at: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ma-supreme-judicial-court/1062540.html#sthash.vqT7uGsk.dpuf

    • John Davidson

      “In the meantime, the defendant entered the Midnite Convenience store in Union Square, a short distance from the Downing home, at about 10 P.M. He worked there on a part-time basis.   He told the store clerk that he had been robbed and stabbed in the square by a black man and a Hispanic man.   The defendant was bleeding from cuts on his hand.   He also had cuts and scrapes on his legs, and appeared distraught.   The clerk called the police.   The defendant was taken to Somerville Hospital.   Police at the Downing home learned about the defendant’s report of having been stabbed and robbed.   Believing there may be a connection between the two crimes because of their proximity in time and place as well as the fact that both involved a stabbing, two officers went to Somerville Hospital to interview the defendant.” – See more at: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ma-supreme-judicial-court/1062540.html#sthash.vqT7uGsk.dpuf

    • John Davidson

      “The defendant’s father was at the hospital.   The officers asked him if they could interview the defendant.   The defendant’s father first spoke with the defendant alone, and they agreed he would speak to the officers about the crime he reported.   The officers made note of his wounds, and that he appeared calm, alert, and cooperative as he related the details of the robbery.   The defendant and his father consented to the officers’ request to take his clothes and a swabbing of the blood stain on his right shin.   The defendant and his father also agreed to bring the clothes to the police station, and to show the officers where the robbery took place.   They then went to Union Square in separate cars and the defendant showed them where he had been robbed.   The area was well lit, and foot traffic was heavy.   The officers looked for blood and signs of a struggle, but found neither.” – See more at: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ma-supreme-judicial-court/1062540.html#sthash.vqT7uGsk.dpuf

    • John Davidson

      “ Finding no physical evidence to support the defendant’s claim of having been mugged, the police began to doubt his story.   Shortly after he arrived at the police station with his father, at about 1:15 A.M. on July 24, an officer advised the defendant of the Miranda rights.   The defendant and his father signed a juvenile Miranda warning-waiver form.   The defendant repeated his account of the robbery.   He was unable to explain the scratches on his arms and legs.   An officer who had been at the Downing home joined the interview.   Near the end of the interview the defendant was asked if he or any of the other boys was involved in Janet Downing’s murder.   The defendant denied any involvement.   He and his parents left the police station that night.   The defendant was arrested on July 25, 1995, at about 7:15 P.M.” – See more at: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ma-supreme-judicial-court/1062540.html#sthash.vqT7uGsk.dpuf

    • John Davidson

      “The defendant’s fingerprints were found in blood on the inside of the front door and on a wooden post in the cellar.   A knife hilt found on a stair in the front foyer of the Downing home was identical in size to that of a knife owned by the defendant that the police found in his trash, and he was known to have two such knives.   Blood consistent with that of the defendant, and having a profile shared by approximately six per cent of the Caucasian population, was found in the front hallway of the Downing home.   Deoxyribonucleic acid test results indicated that blood samples recovered from the Downing home on the front door, the dining room door, and a dress in the cellar matched the defendant’s blood sample.   The blood taken from the defendant’s shin at the hospital was the same type as the victim’s.   Police also saw a trail of blood on Hamlet Street behind the Downing house and continuing about 500 feet along the route the defendant followed when he was seen by John Fitzpatrick and Marco Abreu the evening of July 23.” – See more at: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ma-supreme-judicial-court/1062540.html#sthash.vqT7uGsk.dpuf

  • John Davidson

    Edward S. O’Brien is psychopath with stalker tendencies. If he is let out of prison HE WILL KILL AGAIN AND AGAIN UNTIL HE GETS CAUGHT.

  • Mass Resident

    We aren’t retrying the case. He was found guilt. Parole is something else. Anyone that has ever read one book about development and various stages of childhood. No doubt, @15 he WAS a child. A disturbed one. Sure. Studies show that most souls can’t make decisions understanding consequence until 22-24 years of age. Which, if you look back at that age. How many can say they saw a friend make a stupid mistake with a car or bar fight? I know murder is different. I whole heartenly believe a teenager,a child vs an adult who say committed murder at age 40 that the child criminal has 90% more chance to become rehabilitated. To learn to grow. Learn. Does the prison system not offer programs to better one self? Educate?? Who is more likely to use these programs? Older adults or young criminals/teens?
    There was a time when someone was sentenced to life. It never actually meant until death. Sentencing that is mandatory is unjust. Period. There is no universal sentencing. When our system has tried to implament them. They fail. Such as the three strike law. A young college student get it a fight. One. Gets rowdy at a concert. Two. Ten years later. Layer off. Struggling to provide for family. Gets caught shoplifting. Strike three. Make sense to keep in jail forever?? You could use bad judgement. Have drinks after work, bad weather. Crash, kill a family of four and get more prison time for someone facing there second rape charge /attempted murder. GASP that our court system is flayed. It is. Murder should be the worst lengths of prison time. When our country was established. Right to speedy trial and just punishment fitting to crime have not been followed. Do you think this kid is worse then say Anthony girl that hid and murdered her child and spent thousands of state resources to search for child? She was found not guilty. So was OJ. The point is. This family. Sadly is lucky they received any justice of all. There is 400000 DNA crime scene tests on wait list to find who the attacker was. They found closure on who committed this horrible act. This could be a sick kid. Deranged even. How do you know?? Was he evaluated? NO. He was tried and sentenced as an Adult which is not justice. I don’t think he should get his first chance at parole. But no chance of parole is a death sentence. I think even worse then for the soul going through puberty in prison. If our system for any murder is this eye for eye mentality we might as well start hanging people again because that makes more sense then pay millions upon millions to pay for food and shelter and healthcare for all murderous souls for life.

    • Moudsie

      Nice try–so let this guy out and when he kills again–will people then admit they were wrong to let these kids out? This BS about not having his brain fully formed or whatever is just that — BS. As for the Anthony Case — it was Florida–where you can get away with murder–she did–Zimmerman did and some other fool shot a guy in the movies and got away with that as far as I know, or some other dope shot someone on his property–they are nuts down there in FL–that’s a given.

    • Kelly Mosher

      Serial killers or serial rapists start at younger age than we expect….however…of this person…and Im from the city…cant explain why …then he is a serial killer…..and if he can…hes just a killer…either way..no way no how should he be out. I don’t need an example. His was enough

  • Ann

    The SJC should never have reversed minors getting life in jail without parole to eligible for parole because it’s cruel and unusual punishment. Mrs. Downing being stabbed 98 times isn’t cruel and unusual punishment? I have a cousin that was killed at 15 and her killer is going to get a parole hearing one day too because he was a juvenile. And this kills me because this will also impact the student that killed the teacher in Danvers, MA not too long ago. I am signing everyone’s petition against letting these killers out.

  • KKS

    If he is released he sure kill again and now he is in his 30′s he will also start by raping women and children and kill I remember when channel 5 interviewed Obrien in 1997 he said he is enjoying life behind bars he says its great no school no responsibilities no bills to pay, he has now spent most of his life locked up than he was free all he knows now is the prison life and if he gets paroled and released he wouldn’t know what to do with himself he wont have any more friends cause he lost them all after the murder and with nowhere to live he would obviously will have to stay with parents for time being he would be so bored and not to mention horny he would want to look for someone besides his hand to pleasure himself by forcing himself on another woman or child and knowing that there is a pretty woman or a very cute girl walking around now and could be obriens potential victim is disturbing the dr’s said he was violent and psychotic and like I said he is adjusted to prison life so just keep him there