Downs in 1984
|Born||Elizabeth Diane Frederickson
August 7, 1955
Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.
|Criminal penalty||Life plus 50 years|
|Criminal status||Incarcerated at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California; earliest possible release 2020|
|Spouse(s)||Steve Downs (m. 1973–80)|
|Conviction(s)||June 17, 1984|
Elizabeth Diane Frederickson Downs (born August 7, 1955) is an American woman convicted of the May 1983 murder of her daughter and the attempted murder of her other two children. She is convicted of shooting her three children, killing one and seriously wounding two. Following the shooting, Downs 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.
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.
Elizabeth Diane Frederickson was born in Phoenix, Arizona to Wes and Willadene Frederickson on August 7, 1955. She alleges that her father molested her when she was a child. She graduated from Moon Valley High School in Phoenix where she met her future husband, Steve Downs. After high school, she enrolled at Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College in Orange, California; but, after a year, she was expelled for promiscuity and returned to her parents' home. On November 13, 1973, she married Steve Downs, her high school sweetheart, after running away from home. They were divorced in 1980, about a year after the birth of Stephen "Danny" Downs.
The book Small Sacrifices by Ann Rule documents accounts by friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and eventually her surviving daughter Christie, who question the quality of Downs' parenting. Cheryl reportedly told her grandparents' neighbor shortly before her death that she was afraid of her mother.
On May 19, 1983, prosecutors contend that Downs shot her three children, Stephen Daniel (born 1979); Cheryl Lynn (born 1976); and Christie Ann (born 1974). Downs drove the children in a blood-spattered car to McKenzie-Willamette Hospital. There was blood spatter all over the inside of the car but none on Diane. On arrival at the hospital, Cheryl was already dead. Danny was paralyzed from the waist down and Christie suffered a disabling stroke. Downs herself had been shot in the left forearm. Downs claimed she was carjacked on a rural road near Springfield, Oregon, by a strange man who shot her and her three children.
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.
Their suspicions heightened when Downs had, upon arrival at the hospital to visit her children, called Robert Knickerbocker, a married man and former co-worker in Arizona, with whom she had been having an extramarital affair. The forensic evidence did not match Downs' story; there was no blood 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; Knickerbocker stated that he was relieved that Downs had left for Oregon and that he was able to reconcile with his wife. Downs did not tell police she owned a .22 caliber handgun, but both Steve Downs (her ex-husband) and Knickerbocker (her ex-lover) said she did own one.
Investigators later discovered she 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 Downs' car being driven very slowly toward the hospital at an estimated speed of five to seven mph, contradicting Downs' 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 event, 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, whom (she claimed) let it be known that he did not want children in his life. Much of the case against Downs 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 Downs 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 a month after her 1984 trial to a girl she named Amy. Ten days before her sentencing, the baby was seized by the State of Oregon and adopted soon after. She was renamed Rebecca "Becky" Babcock.
Downs was incarcerated at the Oregon Women's Correctional Center in Salem, Oregon. 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 escape, she was transferred to the New Jersey Department of Corrections Clinton Correctional Facility for Women. This came largely due to heavy lobbying from Hugi. The prison was an hour and a half from Hugi's home in Springfield, and Hugi had feared that Downs would somehow try to get there during her initial escape. The Oregon Department of Corrections significantly upgraded the Women's Correctional Center's security after Downs' escape. However, state officials accepted Hugi's argument that even with these upgrades, the risk of her being near enough to possibly harm Christie and Danny in the event of another escape was too great for her 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, Downs has earned an Associate Degree in General Studies. As of 2010, she is located in the Valley State Prison for Women.
Author Ann Rule wrote the book Small Sacrifices (1987) detailing the life and murder trial of Downs. A made-for-TV movie called Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett as Downs, aired on ABC in 1989. Diane Downs' youngest child, born shortly after her trial concluded, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show on October 22, 2010, and on 20/20 July 1, 2011.
Downs' sentence meant she could not be considered for parole until 2009. Under Oregon law of the time, as a dangerous offender she 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." Downs' 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." Harcleroad 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 in Chowchilla, California. She was not permitted a statement, but answered questions from the parole board. After three hours of interviews and thirty minutes of deliberation, Diane Downs 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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