WOONSOCKET – At a time when the term “road rage” was just coming into vogue, Donald Graham became a local poster child for the phenomenon by using a powerful crossbow to kill a man during a 1994 highway altercation in nearby Massachusetts.
The former church deacon is serving life without the possibility of parole for his crime at the Souza Baranawski Correctional Center in Shirley, a maximum security prison where the population includes serial killers, child molesters and rapists.
Now a longtime Woonsocket businessman who lives in Anchorage, Alaska is writing a book about Graham in a last-ditch effort to call attention to what he says has been a miscarriage of justice.
“It’s the most incredible situation I know as to what happened out there and the fact that he got life without parole just boggles the mind,” says Dave Brown.
A city native who lived in the North End most of his life, Brown worked as his family’s insurance business in Woonsocket for many years. He met Graham when he was a deacon at the First Baptist Church on Blackstone Street more than 25 years ago. At the time, Graham was a recovering alcoholic who was helping the late Paul Dempster establish the organization that became Because He Lives Ministries, known for feeding the poor and homeless.
Graham became a client and a friend, says Brown, who moved to Alaska with his wife, Maureen, seven years ago.
“We insured the First Baptist Church and Donald was the deacon that handled all the business,” he says.
Brown corresponds regularly by letter with Graham, now 71 years old, and sees him in prison when he visits the area.
“He’s the most adaptable person I’ve ever met in my life,” says Brown. “He meditates. He prays. He plays an active role in the AA program. If the outside guy can’t come in he’ll run the program. And he plays cards. He’s a great bridge player.”
Brown says he has all but finished the book, which is about 250 pages long, and expects to self-publish it within a few months. He says it may be Graham’s last hope of getting out of prison before he dies.
On Feb. 20, 1994, Graham was driving on I-95 through Attleboro with his wife, Sandra, then a secretary at Woonsocket High School, when he saw something that offended him: a motorist flashing his lights at another car.
During his trial, Graham admitted that the behavior prompted him to offer the headlight-flickering driver, 42-year-old Michael Blodgett, a “taste of his own medicine.” With his wife beside him in the passenger seat, Graham pulled behind Blodgett’s car and began pursuing him with his high beams on.
Graham claimed Blodgett became the aggressor by throwing trash at his car and hitting the brakes suddenly, attempting to force an accident. Graham claimed he was in fear of Blodgett – so much that when Blodgett stopped his car in the breakdown lane, Graham pulled in back of him and stopped, to prevent Blodgett from getting behind him and running him off the road.
At some point, Blodgett, and another man riding with him, exited their car and began approaching the Graham vehicle. An archery enthusiast, Graham retrieved a powerful crossbow from the trunk of his Toyota Cressida.
He loaded it with a special arrow, or bolt, tipped with double razors than fan out on impact, like a butterfly, to fire at Blodgett. Experts testified that the “Punchcutter” brand tip was manufactured for the express purpose of inducing maximum hemorrhaging in big-game animals and kill them by causing them to bleed to death.
Testifying in his own defense, Graham displayed a detached coolness on the witness stand that, with his silver hair and wire-rimmed glasses, lent him the demeanor of a lab researcher or college professor. He openly admitted he was responsible for the killing, but he denied that it was intentional.
Brown believes Graham and argues that a more appropriate resolution for the case would have been a manslaughter conviction, defined as an involuntary taking of another’s life.
The jury thought otherwise. They convicted Graham one one-count of first-degree murder by means of extreme cruelty or atrocity, setting the stage for his life-without-parole sentence.
Though many trace the term road rage to a wave of highway violence in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, it was still gaining currency in 1994, and the extremity of Graham’s behavior was seized upon by the press as an example of what was often portrayed as an alarming trend. Graham’s actions were reported as breaking news by the national media, and in September 1997, the CBS network’s “48 Hours” featured the story in a segment about the phenomenon.
Brown has never asked Blodgett’s relatives (he was the father of a 15-year-old boy when he died) how they feel about his efforts to gain a sentence reduction for Graham, but he has tried, without success, he says, to reach them for a contribution to his book. Despite his friendship with Graham, Brown says, “I didn’t want to make it one-sided.”
Graham, whose wife died over a decade ago, was incarcerated for a time at MCI Walpole, but he was later transferred to the Souza Baranowski facility, which was built in 1998 to relieve prison overcrowding. Billed by the state as one of the most technologically sophisticated maximum security prisons in the country, it’s home to some of the Commonwealth’s most notorious prisoners.
The late, defrocked priest John Geoghan, convicted of molesting numerous boys as a member of the clergy, was murdered there by another inmate, Darrin Smiledge, in 2003. Serial killers Michael “Mucko” McDermott and Alfred J. Gaynor are also housed there.
Barring something akin to a legal miracle, these inmates and others like them will be Graham’s peers for the rest of his life. He’s already run out of appeals, and he’s not currently represented by legal counsel, according to Brown.
There are only two avenues that might lead to a sentence reduction for Graham, and both are longshots.
“Something new would have to be uncovered to reopen this case,” says Brown. “Or he would have to be pardoned.”