Forty-nine years after Arnold King fatally shot a Boston mayoral aide during a robbery on Newbury Street, a judge vacated his murder conviction based on evidence that prosecutors deliberately excluded Black residents from an all-white jury that found him guilty.
Superior Court Judge Janet L. Sanders on Thursday granted a motion by Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins to reduce King’s first-degree murder conviction for the killing of 26-year-old John Labanara to voluntary manslaughter and sentence him to 20 years in prison. Since King, 67, had spent 49 years in prison before he was released on bail in April, he is now a free man.
“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. Mr. 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 image how difficult it is for Mr. Labanara’s family to have to relive this horrific crime and loss.”
In April, King’s attorney, David Nathanson, filed a motion for a new trial or reduced verdict, arguing that King, who is Black, did not receive a fair trial for the slaying of a white, politically connected lawyer because his case was decided by an all-white jury while Boston was “in the throes of racial upheaval.” King was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In an e-mail Thursday, Nathanson said it was “a somber day but an important one" to win King’s freedom after months of discussions between his office and prosecutors. The “wholesale exclusion” of Black citizens from the jury was “fundamentally wrong," he said.
“I commend DA Rollins for both acknowledging the seriousness of this error and for carefully considering the proper resolution,” Nathanson said. “Today’s reduction of the verdict is a compromise in the interest of freedom, of finality, and allowing Mr. King to take responsibility for the harm he caused, which is important to him.”
King was 18 years old and looking for someone to rob on an October night in 1971 when he and a friend spotted Labanara sitting in his car on Newbury Street. Labanara, a campaign aide to Boston Mayor Kevin H. White, had been 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, the jury found.
Nathanson said that King apologized to Labanara’s family during a video hearing on Thursday, telling them, "I can never bring back Mr. Labanara, so instead I continue offering my life’s work in atonement as I strive towards continuous redemption.”
Labanara’s sister-in-law, Lynne, who in 1972 attended much of King’s trial with her late husband and mother-in-law, declined to comment. She has previously said that she opposed his release.
Joseph Monahan, a Medford lawyer who was John Labanara’s friend, said he believed King’s apology was sincere and “he owned up to everything he did.”
While many of Labanara’s friends might feel differently, Labanara would likely have supported King’s release after so many years, Monahan said.
“John was a compassionate person who probably would have said, ‘Enough is enough, let him out,’ ” he said.
Monahan said he believes Rollins showed courage by supporting King’s release, based on the exclusion of Black people from the jury and King’s remorse and rehabilitation.
“I think he made the most of the last 20 years in prison,” Monahan said. “No one is well-served with him remaining in jail for the rest of his life.”
In prison, King has earned undergraduate and master’s degrees, published articles, mentored fellow inmates, and counseled at-risk youths. 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.”
In the motion to reduce King’s sentence, Assistant District Attorney David Lewis, chief of Rollins’s Integrity Review Bureau, wrote that King’s trial occurred “as racial tensions roiled Boston” and the NAACP sued the Boston School Committee over segregation in the city’s public schools.
“John Labanara was murdered and his family has lived and will continue to live with that awful fact," Rollins said. “The man who killed Mr. Labanara, however, did not receive a fair trial as afforded and required by our Constitution. Racism undid this verdict and conviction. The race-based challenges of every Black juror by the Suffolk County DA’s office undid this conviction. Any anger and disappointment should fall squarely at the feet of this office’s decisions in 1972.”
Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.