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Child killer is denied parole

Mother says she is innocent in 1983 slaying

By Anne M. Peterson
Associated Press / December 10, 2008
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SALEM, Ore. - A woman convicted of killing her daughter a quarter-century ago was denied parole yesterday after proclaiming her innocence and recalling the slain girl as lovable and "cuddly."

Diane Downs answered questions via video link from a California prison for more than two hours before the Oregon parole board turned her down. It was her first chance at parole.

Her 7-year-old daughter, Cheryl Lynn, was killed and her two other children were seriously wounded in a shooting on a rural road in 1983.

Downs, 53, has told varying stories, including one that a bushy-haired stranger shot Cheryl, 3-year-old Danny and 8-year-old Christie Ann, who identified her mother as the shooter during the woman's 1984 trial.

The case shocked the nation and was the subject of "Small Sacrifices," a book by Ann Rule and a made-for-television movie starring Farrah Fawcett.

Downs, serving a sentence of life plus 50 years, 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.

For security reasons, she is now being held at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Calif. She has also spent time in New Jersey and Washington state prisons.

The hearing rules allowed her only to respond to questions posed by the Oregon Board of Parole in Salem.

"That is accurate," she told the board when asked if she maintained her innocence. "That has always been the case, and that will always be the truth."

The prosecution alleged Downs shot her children because she believed they were in the way of her relationship with a married man. At the time, Downs was a divorced, 27-year-old postal worker.

After shooting the children, Downs shot herself in the arm before driving to a hospital, where medical staff noted her calm demeanor, prosecutors said. Later, as a video documented, she giggled at times as she reenacted the attack for police.

During the hearing, she choked up when talking about Cheryl. "Cheryl was an awesome kid," she said. "Cheryl was funny, she was lovable, she was cuddly. . . . The world has missed out on a lot because of missing Cheryl."

Downs reiterated a story about having a boyfriend who claimed to be in the FBI and said she was on her way to meet someone who had photographs for him. She said she is not sure if the man who attacked her family was the man she was supposed to meet or a stranger who flagged her down.

"I have no understanding of why anyone would want to do this," she said.

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

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. "Even after her convictions, she continues to fabricate new versions of events under which the crimes occurred."

Her next chance for reconsideration will be in two years.

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