Guest Author - Donna Johnson
On May 19, 1983, a woman drove up outside the Emergency Room at McKenzie-Willamette Hospital in Springfield, OR. Inside her car, her three children lay bleeding from gunshot wounds.
The woman was Elizabeth Diane Downs, age 27. She told medical staff and police that a stranger had flagged her down as she drove down a country road. She claimed that after she stopped her car, the man shot her children, 8-year-old Christie, 7-year-old Cheryl, and 3-year-old Danny. Downs explained that after the man shot her in the forearm, she escaped by pretending to throw her keys and quickly driving off when he looked away.
Despite the doctors' best efforts, Cheryl Downs died from her wounds. Christie suffered a stroke which impeded her ability to speak and move, and Danny was left a paraplegic. As the hospital staff worked on her children, both they and police took notice of her demeanor, which seemed too calm for a woman who had just witnessed the shootings of her children.
After investigating further, police discovered inconsistencies in Downs's story and found witnesses that refuted her claim of driving to the hospital at top speed. Christie Downs also implicated her mother, not a "bushy-haired stranger" as the shooter. Nine months after the shootings, Downs was arrested and charged with murder, attempted murder, and assault.
The trial became a media frenzy, complete with details of Downs's affair with a married man, which prosecutors cited as her motive for shooting her children--her lover, they alleged, did not want kids. During the trial, Downs was also visibly pregnant and displayed odd behavior in the courtroom, such as appearing to enjoy listening to Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf," which was said to have been playing on the car radio during the shootings.
On June 17, 1984, Downs was convicted of all charges against her, and sentenced to life plus 50 years in prison. She later received an additional sentence of five years for a brief escape from custody in 1987. Prosecutor Fred Hugi and his wife adopted Christie and Danny Downs after the trial. The Ann Rule book "Small Sacrifices" and a TV movie by the same name starring Farrah Fawcett detailed the crimes and trial.
Downs became eligible for parole in 2008, at which time she was denied due to inconsistent accounts of the crime and failure to accept responsibility. She had her second parole hearing on December 10, 2010. At this second hearing, as at her first, Downs abandoned her prior story that she and the children had visited a friend of hers before taking country roads back home. Instead, she told the board that she received a phone call from someone claiming to be an FBI agent, who said he had pictures for her boyfriend Rick, who also may have claimed to be an FBI agent. When she was en route to meet the caller to collect the pictures is when the stranger flagged her car down and shot her children, Downs stated. She has said she did not know if the stranger was the caller or just a random person she happened to encounter.
Previously, state law required that Downs receive a new hearing every 2 years. However, a change in the state law now allows the parole board to extend that time up to 10 years total if they see fit. At the second parole hearing, the board saw fit to do just that, extending her prison stay until at least 2020. A psychologist who evaluated Downs for the hearing stated that she would have the same reaction if she was in the same circumstances today, and Downs offered no insight about her crime and did not accept responsibility.