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Crowdfunding in Cambridge has been used for everything from horror flicks to historical preservation, but never for something so serious as “The Joe Donovan Project.”

With this $15,999 project on Indiegogo, two Cambridge Rindge & Latin School grads – one a filmmaker and writer, the other a social worker – seek to finish and release a documentary film to help free Joe Donovan from a life sentence without parole for the murder of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student on Sept. 18, 1992.

Except that Donovan didn’t murder the student, a 21-year-old Norwegian named Yngve Raustein. Not even Raustein’s family thinks so.

“Almost everyone involved in the case, including the victim’s family, has stated publicly they believe Joe should be released,” said Max McMahon, the 1998 CRLS grad social worker who works in the field of juvenile justice and is producing “Project” with Jason Pugatch, a Los Angeles actor, writer and founder of The Young Storytellers Foundation.

Included in that “everyone” is the original trial judge, Robert Barton, several members of the jury that convicted Donovan and the editorial board of The Boston Globe.

Fatal stabbing

If the details of the case have gotten fuzzy: Essentially Donovan, then 17, met up with a couple of acquaintances on a warm Friday evening. Within 15 minutes they were walking down Memorial Drive and accidentally bumping shoulders with Raustein. Donovan, who admitted years later he was acting like “an idiot,” punched the college student.

Then fellow CRLS student Shon McHugh,15, jumped in – and with basically no provocation stabbed Raustein fatally.

As a minor, McHugh got a 20-year sentence and was released after less than 11 years, his record wiped. The third assailant, Alfredo Velez, 18, ran off with the wallet of Raustein’s friend, another Norwegian named Arne Fredheim, after the stabbing. He took a plea bargain and testified against McHugh and Donovan, also getting a 20-year sentence but serving less than 10 years.

Joe Donovan now, as seen in prison in a still from a documentary being made by two CRLS grads who hope to see him freed. (Photo: The Joe Donovan Project)

Joe Donovan now, as seen in prison in a still from a documentary being made by two CRLS grads who hope to see him freed. (Photo: The Joe Donovan Project)

Donovan, though, refused a plea bargain. He fought in court and lost a first-degree murder charge under what was known as a “joint venture” ruling saying that if a murder is committed in the commission of a felony – in this case, the taking of a wallet – all members of the group are culpable for the murder.

Former Gov. Michael Dukakis appears in the film to explain the tough sentencing based on the tenor of the times.

“I don’t think  there’s any question I and a lot of other governors were tightening up, because we were hit with a pretty tough wave of violence,” Dukakis said. “The ’80s were a pretty violent time.”

Learning from mistakes

But times change. On Wednesday, Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation raising the age of adult criminal responsibility in Massachusetts to 18 years old from 17. State Sen. Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat running for the seat Ed Markey vacated in the 5th Congressional District, filed the Senate bill leading to the law, which she said not just brings Massachusetts in line with juvenile law in most other states but matches “nearly every other law in Massachusetts, including laws setting the minimum age for voting and for serving on a jury [that also assume] 18 years old to be the age of adulthood.”

“The 17-year-olds in our state’s adult criminal justice system are often still in school and still living at home with their parents. These teenagers are not adults, and they deserve the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. This new law helps our children, and I am proud that we are making this important change,” Spilka said.

McMahon and Pugatch, who graduated CRLS in 1992 – Donovan’s class – had followed the case for years individually until they were connected “on a hunch” by a mutual friend. They combined forces on the project, which seeks $15,999 by Oct. 28 so the pair can get the gear, staff and travel expenses they need to keep filming as Donovan’s case develops. They said they are also applying for grants, awards and other money, “but in the documentary film world it’s much harder to raise money for the beginning parts of shooting than the later stages of post-production. That’s why we need your support, and we need it now.”

Kickstarter prizes range from “Why is Joe Donovan still in prison?” stickers for $25 to a co-producer credit, a private screening and more for $5,000.

“It’s an interesting time for juvenile justice nationwide and here in Massachusetts,” McMahon said Wednesday, noting that the Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, putting into question the status of 80 or so inmates locked up for life for crimes they committed as juveniles.

“Joe is one of these cases,” McMahon said, continuing:

We’d like to tell a faithful story about Donovan’s experience and the oddities of system that can create such a sentencing disparity. We hope the film provokes thoughtful questions about this concept of justice which is assumed to prevail above all else. Why is Joe Donovan still in prison? That’s an unsettling question. And the larger social and legal issues that frame the case are truly surprising.

There are also ways to get involved without spending money, including visiting the project’s website and joining a mailing list at thejoedonovanproject.com, following the filmmakers on Twitter at @project_donovan or “liking” the project’s Facebook page.