Diane Downs in 1984
|Born||Elizabeth Diane Frederickson|
August 7, 1955
Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.
|Criminal status||Incarcerated; earliest possible release 2020|
Steve Downs (m. 1973–1980)
|Conviction(s)||June 17, 1984|
|Criminal charge||• Murder|
• Attempted murder
|Penalty||Life plus 50 years|
Elizabeth Diane Frederickson Downs (born August 7, 1955) is an American woman convicted of the May 1983 murder of her daughter and the attempted murders of her other two children. Following the crimes, she told police a stranger had attempted to carjack her and had shot the children. She was convicted in 1984 and sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years.
Downs briefly escaped in 1987 and was recaptured. She is the subject of a book by Ann Rule and a made-for-TV movie based upon it, both called Small Sacrifices. She was denied parole in December 2008 and again in December 2010.
Diane Downs was born in Phoenix, Arizona on August 7, 1955, to Danish and English American parents Wesley Linden (1930-2017) and Willadene (Engle) Frederickson. She alleged that her father sexually abused her when she was a child, although she later recanted these allegations (both parents denied that any such incidents ever took place). Diane graduated from Moon Valley High School in Phoenix where she met her husband, Steve Downs. After high school, she enrolled at Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College in Orange, California, but was expelled after only one year for promiscuous behavior and soon returned to her parents' home in Arizona.
On November 13, 1973, she married Steve after running away from home. Their first child, Christie Ann, was born in 1974; Cheryl Lynn followed in 1976, with Stephen Daniel being born in 1979. The couple divorced in 1980, about a year after the birth of their son. Prior to her arrest, Diane was employed by the United States Postal Service, assigned to the mail routes in the city of Cottage Grove, Oregon. Her daughter Cheryl reportedly told a neighbor of her grandparents that she was afraid of her mother shortly before her death.
On May 19, 1983, Diane Downs shot her three children and drove them in a blood spattered car to McKenzie-Willamette Hospital. Upon arrival, Cheryl was already dead, Danny was paralyzed from the waist down, and Christie had suffered a disabling stroke. Downs herself had been shot in the left forearm. She claimed she was carjacked on a rural road near Springfield, Oregon, by a strange man who shot her and the children. However, investigators and hospital workers became suspicious because they decided her manner was too calm for a person who had experienced such a traumatic event. She also made a number of statements that both police and hospital workers considered highly inappropriate.
Suspicions heightened when Downs, upon arrival at the hospital to visit her children, phoned Robert Knickerbocker, a married man and former coworker in Arizona with whom she had been having an extramarital affair. The forensic evidence did not match her story; there was no blood splatter on the driver's side of the car, nor was there any gunpowder residue on the driver's door or on the interior door panel. Knickerbocker also reported to police that Downs had stalked him and seemed willing to kill his wife if it meant that she could have him to herself; he stated that he was relieved that she had left for Oregon and that he was able to reconcile with his wife.
Downs did not disclose to police she owned a .22 caliber handgun, but both Steve and Knickerbocker informed them that she did. Investigators later discovered Downs bought the handgun in Arizona; and, although they were unable to find the actual weapon, they found unfired casings in her home with extractor markings from the same gun that shot her children. Most damaging, witnesses saw her car being driven very slowly toward the hospital at an estimated speed of five to seven mph, contradicting her claim that she drove to the hospital at a high speed after the shooting. Based on this and additional evidence, Downs was arrested on February 28, 1984, nine months after the shooting, and charged with one count of murder and two counts each of attempted murder and criminal assault.
Prosecutors argued that Downs shot her children to be free of them so she could continue her affair with Knickerbocker, as she claimed that he let it be known that he did not want children in his life. Much of the case against her rested on the testimony of her surviving daughter, Christie, who, once she recovered her ability to speak, described how her mother shot all three children while parked at the side of the road and then shot herself in the arm. Christie was eight years old at the time of the murder and nine years old at the time of the trial.
Downs was convicted on all charges on June 17, 1984, and sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years. She would have to serve 25 years before being considered for parole. Psychiatrists diagnosed her with narcissistic, histrionic and antisocial personality disorders. Most of her sentence is to be served consecutively. The judge made it clear that he did not intend for Downs to ever be free again.
Prior to her arrest and trial, Downs became pregnant with a fourth child and gave birth to a girl, whom she named Amy Elizabeth, a month after her 1984 trial. Ten days before Downs' sentencing, Amy was seized by the State of Oregon and adopted by a family named Babcock. Her new parents gave her the name Rebecca. She spoke out in 2010 about her life. She appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and ABC's 20/20 discussing how she feels about her biological mother. She wrote to Downs in her younger years and has stated that she regrets it, regarding her mother as a monster.
Downs was incarcerated at the Oregon Women's Correctional Center in Salem. She escaped on July 11, 1987, and was recaptured just a few blocks from the prison on July 21. She received an additional five-year sentence for the escape. After her recapture, Downs was transferred to the New Jersey Department of Corrections Clinton Correctional Facility for Women at Hugi's request. The Salem prison was located 66 miles from Hugi's home in Springfield; during Downs' ten days of freedom, Hugi feared that she would attempt to travel there. Despite significant security upgrades at the women's facility after the escape, state officials accepted Hugi's argument that the risk of harm to Christie and Danny in the event of another escape remained too great for Downs to remain incarcerated in Oregon.
In 1994, after serving ten years, Downs was transferred to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. While in prison, she has earned an Associate Degree in General Studies. As of 2010, she is located in the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California, but transferred out when the facility was converted to an all-male institution in 2013.
Author Ann Rule wrote the book Small Sacrifices (1987) detailing Downs' life and murder trial. The book documents accounts by friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and her surviving daughter Christie, who question the quality of her parenting. A made-for-TV movie also titled Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett as Downs, aired on ABC in 1989.
Downs' sentence meant she could not be considered for parole until 2009. Under Oregon law of the time, as a dangerous offender, Downs would have been eligible for a parole hearing every two years until she is released or dies in prison.
In her first application for parole in 2008, Downs reaffirmed her innocence. "Over the years," she said, "I have told you and the rest of the world that a man shot me and my children. I have never changed my story." Her first parole hearing was on December 9, 2008. Lane County District Attorney Douglas Harcleroad wrote to the parole board, "Downs continues to fail to demonstrate any honest insight into her criminal behavior...even after her convictions, she continues to fabricate new versions of events under which the crimes occurred." He also wrote that "she alternately refers to her assailants as a bushy-haired stranger, two men wearing ski masks or drug dealers and corrupt law enforcement officials." Downs participated in the hearing from the Valley State Prison for Women. She was not permitted a statement, but answered questions from the parole board. After three hours of interviews and thirty minutes of deliberation, she was denied parole.
Downs faced her second parole hearing on December 10, 2010. She was denied parole and, under a new law, will not be eligible for parole for another ten years. She will have to wait to apply for parole until 2020, when she will be 65 years old.
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- DIANE DOWNS PAROLE ELIGIBILITY
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