Arnold King was 18 years old and looking for someone to rob on an October night in 1971 when he and a friend spotted John Labanara sitting in his car on Newbury Street.
A 26-year-old campaign aide to Boston Mayor Kevin H. White, Labanara had gone out with friends to celebrate passing the bar exam. King, who had been out of jail just two days, stuck a gun through his window and shot him in the head, a jury found.
King was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. In years to come, he expressed remorse for Labanara’s slaying, saying he was high on drugs when he pulled the trigger “in a moment of rage and stupor.”
“I don’t want people to look at me today as that teenage killer,” King said at a 2007 commutation hearing. “Because I’m much older, I’m much wiser, I’m different, I’ve changed.”
In prison, King has earned undergraduate and master’s degrees, published articles, mentored fellow inmates, and counseled at-risk youths. With support from community leaders who say he has been rehabilitated and poses no risk, King has filed seven petitions to have his sentence commuted. Each time, his request for clemency has been denied.
Now, after nearly 49 years in prison, King is free, at least for now, based on new allegations of racism at his murder trial and concerns about the coronavirus.
On April 7, King’s attorney, David Nathanson, filed a motion seeking a new trial or reduced verdict, arguing that King, who is Black, did not receive a fair trial for the slaying of a politically connected white lawyer because his case was decided by an all-white jury while Boston was “in the throes of racial upheaval.”
“The jury that determined King’s guilt and sentenced him to life without parole was forged by racism,” wrote Nathanson, alleging that prosecutors systematically struck Black people from the jury pool at the 1972 trial.
On April 28, Superior Court Judge Janet L. Sanders stayed King’s life sentence and released him on bail to live with a relative in Dorchester while his new trial motion is pending because of the pandemic. Nathanson said King was at high risk of harm if he contracts COVID-19 because he is 67 and has asthma. Prosecutors assented to his release, saying he has raised a legitimate claim about biased jury selection, posed a “low security risk,” and has extensive community ties.
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins has yet to respond to King’s motion for a new trial and has asked her office’s Conviction Integrity Program, which reviews claims of wrongful convictions based on unconstitutional or unethical actions, to examine the case.
“The issues being raised in the Arnie King case speak directly to Boston’s documented and painful history on race relations,” Rollins said in a statement. “Mr. King stands convicted of a heinous murder. The victim, John Labanara, had the brightest of futures ahead of him, and his loved ones and community still feel his loss five decades later. I can only imagine how difficult it is for Mr. Labanara’s family to have to relive this horrific crime and loss as a result of the filing of Mr. King’s motion.”
However, “finality should never be a substitute for justice,” she added.
“Whenever concerns are raised that justice has not been done, the interests of justice, community trust and public safety demand that we thoroughly and earnestly review what happened,” Rollins said.
Rollins said her job is not only to prosecute new criminal offenses, but also to review past convictions to make sure they were secured constitutionally and ethically.
“While revisiting the scars of Boston’s past will be painful and uncomfortable, it is absolutely necessary for our city’s future,” she said.
As of July 22 of this year, 2,567 inmates had been released from the state’s jails and prisons since April, following a Supreme Judicial Court ruling aimed at containing the coronavirus. It established a process to release inmates who were being held before trial or were near the end of their sentences.
It’s unclear whether any other inmates convicted of first-degree murder have been released because of the pandemic. Those statistics were not readily available, according to a Department of Correction spokesman.
Labanara’s sister-in-law, Lynne, who attended most of the trial with her late husband and mother-in-law, said King’s race had nothing to do with the murder or his prosecution.
“Racism wasn’t an issue then and it isn’t an issue now,” she said. “It’s about justice for a life that was taken.”
King “wasn’t prosecuted because he was Black, he was prosecuted because he was the triggerman,” she said.
Labanara said King was not wrongfully accused and it’s upsetting that he may remain free. If King is granted a new trial, prosecutors would decide whether to retry him. If his sentence is reduced to second-degree murder or manslaughter, he would be eligible for parole.
“It’s almost like John’s life doesn’t matter,” Labanara said. “We were given justice and now the scales of justice are going to be tipped because one victim isn’t around and now Arnold King is the victim. How do you justify that?”
In 1971, King had been on parole after serving seven months in prison for robbery when he and a friend traveled from New Hampshire to Boston looking for drugs and money, prosecutors said at trial.
Nathanson alleges that prosecutors used peremptory challenges to remove at least five Black people from the jury. No Black people were on the jury, even though they made up 14 percent of Suffolk County’s population at the time.
“The system was not yet willing to acknowledge that prosecutors were engaging in racist conduct when selecting jurors,” Nathanson wrote in his motion.
In 1979, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled it was unconstitutional to eliminate prospective jurors based on race and overturned the first-degree murder convictions of three Black men for the 1976 slaying of a white Harvard University football player in Boston.
Nathanson wrote that the SJC declined to apply its ruling retroactively in several cases where it concluded race wasn’t a factor at trial, including one in which the defendant, the victim, and most of the witnesses were Black. But Nathanson argued it should be applied retroactively to King’s case because his trial was tainted by racism and led to a miscarriage of justice.
Michael Meltsner, a Northeastern University School of Law professor, said he met King years ago and is impressed by how he has matured in prison.
He said King should have been released long ago, but the state’s commutation system is “dysfunctional” because governors have consistently denied pleas for commutations for fear of political backlash.
“I’ve visited Arnie in prison and it was obvious that his wisdom and dignity was respected by both fellow prisoners and correctional personnel,” Meltsner said. “When he was finally released, he was greeted by cheers and applause as he made his way to leave.”