20/20 covers infamous case of Oregon woman convicted of shooting her children

Initially, Diane Downs claimed that her children had been shot by a strange man — gaining her public sympathy. But her story quickly began to unravel.

Posted: Mar. 22, 2019 12:20 PM
Updated: Mar. 22, 2019 12:29 PM

One of Oregon's most reviled murder cases will receive the 20/20 treatment on Friday night.

In 1983, Diane Downs drove her blood-spattered car to a hospital in Springfield, Oregon — claiming that a strange man had shot her and all three of her children.

Downs told police that a shaggy-haired man had waived them down on a deserted road, then pulled a gun, asked for the keys, and opened fire when Downs refused to hand them over. While her children received serious injuries, Downs' only injury was a gunshot wound to the left arm.

Downs' daughter Cheryl died from the gunshot wounds. Her other daughter Christie and son Danny miraculously survived after medical staff fought to keep them alive, though both remained in critical condition.

Initially, police began a manhunt based on the information that Downs had provided, looking for the "bushy-haired man." But in the meantime, both investigators and medical staff became increasingly suspicious of Downs' demeanor. She seemed completely unfazed by the incident, the death and wounding of her children — but she was incredibly agreeable when it came to attention from investigators and the press.

Over time, no leads emerged on the supposed attacker. Police were also unable to find the murder weapon, a .22 caliber semi-automatic handgun.

Eventually, nine months after the bloody incident that claimed the life of one child and nearly ended the lives of two more, police arrested Diane Downs for one count of murder and two counts each of attempted murder and criminal assault. As the investigation shifted, evidence began to point more and more convincingly toward Downs being the perpetrator.

Prosecutors alleged that Downs had shot her children so that she could be unencumbered in carrying on an affair with a married man. During the trial, 9-year-old Christie Downs, having recovered the ability to speak following treatment of her grievous injuries, testified against her mother.

Downs would be convicted in 1984, and sentenced to life in prison. However, she was still eligible for parole after 25 years.

Christie and Danny Downs were adopted by the prosecutor who had tried their mother. Meanwhile, Diane Downs had become pregnant with a fourth child before her arrest, giving birth following her conviction. The baby was taken by the State of Oregon and adopted by a family, naming her Rebecca Babcock.

In 1987, Downs escaped from the Oregon Women's Correctional Center in Salem. She was arrested ten days later, staying just a few blocks from the prison. She was then transferred to out-of-state prisons so that she would not be a threat to her surviving children.

Downs has been denied parole several times after serving 25 years, and she continues to argue her innocence. Her next parole hearing is in 2020.

The ABC 20/20 two-hour special "My Mother's Sins" premieres tonight at 9 p.m.

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