WOONSOCKET â€” He was an honor student and the valedictorian of his high school class. He served in the military as a member of the famed 101st Airborne Division. He became a church deacon and an advocate for the poor.
But on a cold February night in 1994, Donald Graham was on a road to ruinous violence that would leave another man dead and his own life in shambles.
As he drove home from dance lessons with his wife on I-95, Graham shot a man with a powerful crossbow after a game of motor-vehicle cat-and-mouse in Massachusetts, near the state line. Graham was convicted of first-degree murder and is now serving life without parole at the Souza Baranowski Detention Center in Shirley, a place some of the Bay Stateâ€™s most notorious serial killers, rapists and pedophiles call home.
How could Graham have fallen so far from grace? Did he really deserve the punishment imposed on him by a Massachusetts Superior Court judge?
These and other questions are explored in a new book about the fatal encounter, â€śDeaconâ€™s Crossbow.â€ť The author is David G. Brown, a longtime Woonsocket businessman who befriended Graham when the convicted killer was a deacon at the First Baptist Church on Blackstone Street, then home of the Because He Lives Ministries. The non-profit is still a household name in Woonsocket, known for providing meals to the homeless.
Brown, who has lived in Anchorage, Ala. since 2005, is still friends with Graham and makes no secret of his bias.
â€śWhen I think about life without parole all I can say is itâ€™s just a bad sentenceâ€™â€ť says Brown. â€śMaybe even a railroading.â€ť
Despite his support for Graham, now 72, Brown can see why people familiar with the case might think the defendant was his own worst enemy. Brown knows Graham as an analytical, introspective and brutally honest man, but there were times when it mattered to the outcome of his case when his nature probably didnâ€™t help him.
One of those times was in September 1997, when the CBS-TV newsmagazine â€ś48 Hoursâ€ť interviewed Graham for a segment on road rage, which was then a relatively new phenomenon. When celebrity journalist Dan Rather told Graham he hadnâ€™t heard him say he was sorry for what he did, Grahamâ€™s answer made him seem self-righteous and cold.
â€śIâ€™m sorry it happened. I wish it hadnâ€™t happened,â€ť the lanky, bespectacled prisoner told Rather on national television. â€śIâ€™m sorry I had to defend myself. I was forced to defend myself. And it will not apologize for defending my wife and defending my own life. I wonâ€™t apologize for that.â€ť
Then he said a couple of things that had to be bleeped out.
It wasnâ€™t the first time Grahamâ€™s own words had left a troubling impression. In one of his first statements to law enforcement, he told police he wasnâ€™t sure whether he pulled the trigger of his crossbow â€śintentionallyâ€ť or â€śinstinctively.â€ť At trial, his lawyers muddied the waters with yet another possible scenario, that Graham had depressed the trigger accidentally, but it was too late: Grahamâ€™s statements had already charted a course for the case that would lead jurors to consider that he might have committed a pre-meditated homicide, the only crime in the Bay State punishable by life without parole.
As he posits in the book, however, Brown believes the â€śself-appointed guardian of the highways,â€ť as prosecutors dubbed Graham, has long had a public relations problem that undermined the cause of justice.
â€śI really got to like Don,â€ť says Brown. â€śI found him extremely bright, extremely witty. Heâ€™d stand up for things that were right as opposed to things that were popular. I canâ€™t always explain why, but I just really admired the guy.â€ť
THE DEADLY encounter took place on Feb. 20, 1994, as Graham and his wife, Sandra, a secretary in the Woonsocket Education Department, were driving home from a night of dance lessons in Canton, Mass. As they approached the state line, Graham saw another motorist do something that offended him: flash his high beams at the car in front of him.
That headlight-flashing car was operated by Michael Blodgett, a divorced father of two from Attleboro. An ambulance driver, Blodgett, 42, was riding with a co-worker, Rob Astin.
Pulling behind Blodgett at highway speed, Graham began flashing his own high beams, giving Blodgett what he later called â€śa taste of his own medicine.â€ť
Graham later claimed that even though Blodgett was traveling ahead of him, Blodgett became the aggressor by throwing trash at his vehicle and hitting the brakes suddenly, nearly forcing an accident. Blodgett was the first to pull off to the shoulder, but Graham stopped behind him instead of traveling on, saying he was afraid Blodgett would come after him if he did so.
Blodgett and Astin began walking toward Grahamâ€™s car, prompting him to go into the trunk, where the archery enthusiast kept one of several crossbows he owned.
An arrow, or bolt, from Grahamâ€™s weapon struck Blodgett in the chest, but the victim was still talking and alert as his friend Astin led him back to their car. Later, witnesses testified that Blodgett bled to death at Sturdy Memorial Hospital from a wound caused by a special bolt designed to inflict maximum tissue damage by opening up like a butterfly knife on impact.
Seemingly overnight, Graham went from being the unknown deacon of a Woonsocket church to the poster boy for the emerging trend of road rage.
Brown was among a small group of supporters who stood by Graham and his wife, who has since died, in the days after his conviction.
Knowing Graham as well as he does, Brown argues that itâ€™s inconceivable that he was capable of killing anyone unless provoked or in fear. Brown believes that Graham should have never been convicted of anything worse than second-degree murder or manslaughter.
In other words, it was either a case of self-defense or an unintentional killing, Brown says.
In the years after the conviction, Brown and other Graham supporters helped track down lawyers who twice appealed the conviction to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. About three years ago they did a legal Hail Mary, petitioning Gov. Deval Patrick to commute Grahamâ€™s sentence.
The prayer was not answered.
A former insurance executive, Brown, 71, used to sell coverage to the First Baptist Church, which is how he met Graham, but he abandoned the profession in the late 1990s and began traveling with his wife, Maureen Peterson. They settled in Anchorage, where Brown launched a second career as a creative writer.
â€śDeaconâ€™s Crossbowâ€ť is Brownâ€™s first work of non-fiction, but more importantly, the author says it was conceived as his last best chance of doing what Grahamâ€™s supporters have so far failed to â€“ win him a chance at parole.
â€śThe only way thereâ€™s going to be another appeal is for some new information to surface,â€ť says Brown. â€śIâ€™m hoping some legal authority will read this book and come up with a slant that will free Donald Graham.â€ť
The 257-page book is a unique take on the true crime genre, as Brown employs techniques of fiction and memoir with the timeline of events that began on that fateful night in 1994. He also blends in historical context, biographical information about his subject and liberal excerpts from news accounts of the day, including some by this writer that appeared in The Call.
Local readers will find an instantly recognizable cast of characters and places with some connection or another to the case, from the now-defunct Floruâ€™s Restaurant, where Brown used to trade scuttlebutt about Graham with patrons over coffee, to Tom Dickinson, one of Grahamâ€™s appeals lawyers and a former deputy attorney general who now serves as Woonsocketâ€™s probate judge.
Anyone interested in knowing more about the book or who wants to buy a copy can visit ww.createspace.com/3839802.