Seeking redemption

Arnold L. King has been behind bars since 1972, when he was sentenced to life without parole for the first-degree murder of John Labanara on Newbury Street.

He was 18 at the time of the crime, a dropout and a drug addict, two days removed from incarceration in New Hampshire. King is now being held at the Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk, a medium-security prison.

Against the odds, it's been a productive 33 years. King has earned three degrees and become a jailhouse journalist and a well-regarded counselor to youth about the importance of avoiding the mistakes he made.

Now he wants to be set free.

Because King is ineligible for parole, his only path to freedom is through commutation by the Governor's Council.

Last November, the state's Advisory Board of Pardons voted 4 to 3 to recommend that Governor Mitt Romney ask the council to commute King's sentence. Romney has yet to act on the recommendation, which expires if not acted on within a year.

During his years out of sight, King has amassed a large number of supporters, people who have written letters, testified at hearings, and formed committees in support of his bid to win release.

About two dozen of them were at a brunch Sunday at Mel King's house in the South End. It was a group that meets regularly. A couple of them are politicians; some are community activists. But others had been drawn simply by sympathy for Arnold King's cause.

Though King (no relation to Mel) was the proximate cause of the gathering, its larger theme was redemption. If King can't win release, if his is not an example of successful rehabilitation, then, in the eyes of this group, commutation is an empty promise.

''Arnie is a great guy," Mel King said. ''But we need to be clear. This is not about Arnie King. This is about people and whether we have the capacity to forgive. If we had that capacity, the world would be different. That's what's at stake here."

Several people attested to Arnold King's effectiveness in dealing with youths who seem to be on the verge of going astray. His last commutation hearing, in 2004, drew 150 supporters, and letters in support of his release have come from a cross-section of clergy, professors, activists, and others.

Kazi Toure, King's older brother, said King accepts full responsibility for the life he took. ''He can't bring that life back," Toure said. ''But he can try to save someone else's life, by keeping someone else from doing something stupid."

Representative Gloria Fox, a Roxbury Democrat, said members of the Black Legislative Caucus have sought a meeting with Romney for months. Though she has met with members of his staff, Romney hasn't agreed to sit down. ''Once you have paid your debt to society, how long do you have to pay?" she asked.

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom strongly indicated yesterday that King's commutation isn't imminent. He pointed to guidelines Romney set forth in 2003 for commutation, which call for, among other things, a unanimous recommendation from the advisory board.

''The fact that the members of the advisory board are unable to agree on whether it is warranted in this case means it is highly unlikely to be approved," he said. ''Only under the most extraordinary circumstances should a governor substitute his judgment for the judgment of a judge and jury."

That reasoning is a source of frustration to King's supporters, who believe that Romney is unwilling to risk a potentially controversial commutation when he is weighing a run for the White House. Thus far, Romney's standard of forgiveness has proved insurmountable: Not one pardon or commutation has been granted since he became governor.

King's supporters have no intention of going away. As far as they're concerned, King has not only met the conditions for commutation, he has fulfilled his sentence itself. ''Isn't 33 years a life sentence?" asked his sister, Marva King. ''That's a life right there."

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

Published on October 13, 2005 by the Boston Globe.

2005 The New York Times Company

Reproduction of this material constitutes a 'fair use' of copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law.  In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit for research and  educational purposes.



In 2004,  Arnie King received a favorable recommendation to be considered for commutation. That recommendation has not been acted upon by the Governor.



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