Joe Labriola was a decorated Marine, wounded during the Vietnam War and awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for valor.
Seven years later, in 1973, he was convicted of first-degree murder in what prosecutors described as a hired killing. He served 46 years in prison before receiving medical parole last year, although his claims of innocence never wavered.
Throughout his years, he expressed pride in his military service and deep regret that due to his murder conviction, he would never be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the nation’s most revered military cemetery.
Labriola died in July at 75. But his posthumous bid for clemency, and the honor of being buried in Arlington, is before Massachusetts’ parole board, a final appeal that his military service afford him a measure of mercy.
His ashes remain in a sealed box at a friend’s home while his lawyers and dozens of supporters call for his life sentence to be commuted.
“I have maintained my innocence of this crime since the day I was accused and I maintain my innocence now, nearly a half-century later,” Labriola wrote in his petition, filed two weeks after his death, lamenting that time had run out on his lawyers’ ongoing efforts to win exoneration. “I humbly and urgently request that you grant a commutation of my sentence, thereby allowing this dying Marine to be buried at Arlington amongst the brethren with whom he served.”
In 1997, Congress banned those convicted of capital crimes from being buried in veterans’ cemeteries to prevent Timothy McVeigh, the Army veteran who killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing, from being laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. But that law was amended in 2006, creating an exception for those whose sentences were commuted.
Labriola’s petition said the US Senate unanimously approved the amendment because it realized that a murder conviction “should not always be the defining feature of someone’s life” and clemency is sometimes warranted to allow an honorable burial.
“The defining feature of Joe’s life, with which he wholly identified, was his service as a United States Marine,” wrote his legal team, John Reinstein, Nancy Gertner, and Eleanor Umphres. “Joe’s youth and best friends died in Vietnam; he suffered tremendous pain for the rest of his life from the wounds he sustained in war; and he was decorated by his country for his heroic service and sacrifice.”
A spokesman for the parole board declined to comment on Labriola’s commutation petition, which will be granted only if it’s approved by the board, the governor, and the Governor’s Council.
The parole board recently asked the Norfolk district attorney’s office to provide records from Labriola’s case by the end of the year, according to David Traub, a spokesman for the office. The office has not taken a position on the petition, he said.
The brother of Arthur Motsis, the man Labriola was convicted of killing, said he was unaware of Labriola’s commutation request and did not wish to speak about it.
“I just want to forget it,” Leo Motsis said of his brother’s murder.
Arthur Motsis, a 40-year-old Roxbury real estate broker, was identified as an alleged cocaine dealer and federal informant in court filings. In 1973, his body was discovered in the woods off a highway in Dedham. He had been shot 11 times.
Representative Seth Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer who served four combat tours in Iraq, said he didn’t know if Labriola was innocent but believes his dying wish should be granted. He was unaware of Labriola’s request until contacted by The Boston Globe, then reviewed his petition.
“For Joe, it’s clear that his Marine buddies were his family. From what I know of his story, he thought about them every day, and spent a lifetime fighting to give a voice to other incarcerated vets,” he said. “As a Christian who believes in forgiveness and repentance, and as a veteran who understands the price of war and the impact it has on vets for the rest of their lives, I believe Joe should be reunited with the men whose lives he saved.”
A commutation, unlike a pardon, does not erase a conviction. It’s unclear whether anyone convicted of murder has been laid to rest at Arlington National after receiving a commutation. John Harlow, a spokesman for the cemetery, said it doesn’t keep that information.
Labriola’s request comes as space at the cemetery grows scarce, leading to a proposal this year for new eligibility restrictions. But Thomas J. Lyons, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam and a longtime advocate for veterans, said someone who “shed his blood for his country and had been recognized for heroism deserves the opportunity to be buried at Arlington.”
“What is the harm in saying we are going to give him a pass and we are going to allow him to be buried with dignity and respect?” Lyons asked.
Coleman Nee, a Marine veteran and former Massachusetts secretary of veterans services, said he met Labriola a decade ago after the inmate invited him to the prison for a Veterans Day ceremony.
He said the parole board should “deeply consider” that Labriola was wounded fighting in an unpopular war. Like other Vietnam veterans, he didn’t receive the support he needed to transition back into society, he said.
“Being buried in a military cemetery is not a validation of anything he did after (military service),” Nee said. “It’s an honor you already earned.”
Labriola grew up in New Jersey and was 17 when he enlisted in the Marines in 1963. Three years later, he was serving as a squad leader in Vietnam when he suffered a serious leg wound during combat.
“I saw so much bravery in him,” said Larry Bristow, a Marine Corps veteran from Alabama who said he and Labriola were pinned down by enemy gunfire while trying to retrieve the bodies of slain American soldiers. Labriola watched out for him and the other members of the squad, he said.
After Labriola returned home, he worked as a Marine recruiter in Brockton, got married, and had a daughter. He became addicted to painkillers while being treated for his combat injuries and suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, according to his petition. He began selling large quantities of marijuana.
At trial, Labriola testified that he dropped Motsis alongside the highway. He said Motsis told him he was meeting someone for a drug deal. His body was discovered the next day. Prosecutors alleged that Labriola was paid to kill Motsis, and a jury found him guilty.
Labriola’s lawyers said there was no forensic evidence linking him to the crime and no eyewitnesses. In March 2019, Labriola was granted medical parole. He was in a wheelchair, suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a heart condition.
Karen Schulman, a longtime friend of Labriola’s who cared for him at her Milford home and was by his side when he died, said he was “a good person” who risked his life for his country.
“He was so proud to be a Marine, so proud that he served his country,” Schulman said. She recounted how he watched the annual Memorial Day parade from his wheelchair, waving an American flag and holding a sign with the names of friends killed in combat.
She has kept Labriola’s ashes in a sealed box, waiting for the parole board to rule.