Victim: Janet Downing, 42
Age at time of murder: 15
Crime location: Somerville
Crime date: July 23 1995
Murder method: Stabbing 98 times
Convictions: First-degree murder
Sentence: Life without parole (LWOP) later reduced to 15 years to life
O’Brien was friends with Janet’s son and lived across the street from the Downing family. He developed a pre-occupation with Janet, watching her from a telescope and watching her undress. One summer day, O’Brien entered the Downing residence and stabbed Janet to death as she slept on her couch. The killer was convocated of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. Though his original sentence did not allow for parole, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that juvenile killers must have a chance to be released. The killer is now eligible for release, a prospect that the Downings fear.
We summarize the facts the jury could have found, reserving other details for discussion of the issues. The victim, Janet Downing, was the mother of one of the defendant’s best friends, Ryan Downing. The defendant and Ryan Downing belonged to a large and close-knit group of high school boys who lived in the Prospect Hill neighborhood of Somerville. The Downing home was a frequent gathering place for the boys, and Janet Downing was well liked by the group. The defendant, who was fifteen years old in July, 1995, lived across the street from the Downings on Boston Street.
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.
During the evening of July 22, 1995, the defendant met Ryan Downing and they talked. At one point in the conversation, the defendant spoke of his desire to hurt someone. At about 7 P.M. on July 23, 1995, some boys, including the defendant, gathered in the kitchen at the Downing home to discuss plans for the evening. The victim was asleep on the living room couch, a fact which drew a comment from the defendant. The boys decided to go swimming, except the defendant, who said he was going to visit another friend, Garvey Salomon. The defendant never went to Salomon’s house.
Paul Downing and Jeannie O’Brien, the defendant’s sister, had been to Revere Beach and returned at about 8 P.M. Each went home briefly. The victim was still asleep on the couch. The defendant was sitting on his front porch. Paul and Jeannie left at about 8:20 P.M. to return to Revere Beach.
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.
Ryan Downing arrived home at about 10 P.M. and found his mother lying lifeless on the dining room floor. Some furniture had been overturned and there were blood stains in the foyer, the kitchen, dining room, a bathroom, and in the cellar. He ran across the street to the O’Brien home and asked for help. The defendant’s father called the police, who began arriving within one minute. Paramedics attempted to resuscitate the victim, then transported her to a hospital where she was pronounced dead.
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.
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.
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.
An autopsy revealed that Janet Downing sustained sixty-six stab wounds and thirty-two incised wounds (length greater than width). There were numerous stab and incise wounds to her neck, and small puncture wounds under her chin. Her upper right lung had seven stab wounds which corresponded to only two exterior wounds, signifying that a knife had been thrust into the two exterior wounds more than once. There was one stab wound to her lower left lung, and two to her liver. One stab was delivered with such force that it cut her second left rib in two. There were defensive wounds on her left hand and arm. The cause of death was determined to be a loss of blood due to multiple stab wounds, most significantly to the lungs and liver.
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.
Erin Downing and her family fear that changes in how Massachusetts handles juvenile murderers will let her mother’s killer out of prison.
by STEVE ANNEAR· 1/21/2014, 4:37 p.m.
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.”