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Convicted Oregon Child Killer Up For Parole

After nearly 25 years in prison, Diane Downs has again changed her story about the night she and her children were shot on a rural road near Springfield.

Downs was convicted of killing her 7-year-old daughter, Cheryl Lynn, and wounding Danny, 3, and Christie Ann, 8. The crime, which shocked the nation long before Susan Smith and Andrea Yates killed their own children, inspired a best-selling book and a made-for-television movie.

On Tuesday, Downs, now 53, was scheduled to face the Oregon Board of Parole for the first time. Imprisoned in California, she was expected to address the hearing in Salem via video conference.

While she has always maintained her innocence, Downs has given wildly varying accounts through the years of what happened the night of May 19, 1983. First, it was a bushy-haired stranger who tried to carjack her and ended up shooting the family. More recently, she claimed to know the identity of the shooter and to have proof that he confessed to friends and family.

In a document provided to the parole board this year, Downs said that at the time she was dating a man who claimed to be an FBI agent. On the night of the shooting, she got a phone call from another man who claimed to have photographs of someone the agent was investigating. She agreed to meet him.

"When I arrived at the meeting place, my children were attack," she wrote. "I struggled with the male shooter and drove my children to the hospital."

Asked in a parole board questionnaire whether she is remorseful for the actions or behaviors that led to her incarceration, Downs said she prefers the word "regret."

"I realize this questionnaire is a tactful way of asking if I accept responsibility for the death of my daughter. And I'm not trying to make this any harder on you than you are being on me," she wrote. "It's just that I did not shoot my children and I can't say I did."

The questionnaire is one of several documents Downs submitted to the board. She also addressed a litany of accusations leveled against her while she has been in prison, as well as her psychological evaluation and legal arguments on why she should be freed. The psychological evaluation has not been made public.

Lane County District Attorney F. Douglass Harcleroad dismissed her claims in a letter to the board opposing her release.

"Downs continues to fail to demonstrate any honest insight into her criminal behavior," Harcleroad wrote. "She continues to blame others for the commission of her crimes, and blames her attorney, the police officers, the prosecutor and others for her convictions. Even after her convictions, she continues to fabricate new versions of events under which the crimes occurred."

At trial, a jury believed the prosecution's assertion that Downs drove to the isolated road, got a .22-caliber handgun out of the trunk and shot her children. She then shot herself in the arm before driving to a hospital, prosecutors said.

Those who treated Downs at the hospital noted her calm behavior. Later, as a video documented, she giggled at times as she re-enacted the attack for police.

The prosecution alleged Downs shot her children because she believed they were in the way of her relationship with a married man.

Christie Downs testified as a key witness. Prosecutor Frederick Hugi asked her: "Who shot you?"

"Mom," she replied.

Downs was convicted of murder, attempted murder and assault. She was sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years.

Downs made headlines again in 1987 when she escaped from the Oregon Women's Correctional Center. She was captured 10 days later at a home less than a mile from the prison.

In one document submitted to the parole board, Downs argued that her escape was a rationale for paroling her.

"If you truly want to know what sort of prisoner won't come back to prison, your first clue is the prisoner who thinks more about being on the outside of this place than being `well programmed' or `adjusted' HERE," she wrote. "I am NOT ashamed of my escape. At least I don't want to be here and will do everything I need to do so I don't come back."

Downs is now at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Calif. If she is denied parole, her next chance for reconsideration will be in two years. If she is ever granted parole, her release will be delayed 14 months as she serves time for the 1987 escape.


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