A convicted murderer who has spent half a century behind bars, many of them expressing contrition, moved one step closer to freedom on Monday when the state’s Parole Board unanimously agreed to recommend reducing his convictions from first-degree murder to second-degree murder for the killing of two security guards during a botched robbery at a Dorchester store.
The favorable 5-0 decision of the Advisory Board of Pardons, which the Parole Board serves as, could ultimately make Ramadan Shabazz, 72, eligible for parole after 51 years behind bars.
Shabazz, a Vietnam War veteran who earned two college degrees while in prison, participated in 54 programs, and tutored other inmates, “has made exceptional strides in rehabilitation and self-development,” according to the board’s 25-page report and recommendation.
Since his conviction for murder in the summer of 1971, Shabazz — born James Hall — also has changed his name and his religion.
Shabazz was born in South Carolina. His family moved to Boston when he was 9. He graduated from Jamaica Plain High and was drafted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War.
Shabazz returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder and a serious addiction to heroin.
Shabazz told authorities he remembered little of the robbery at the Freedom Foods supermarket on Aug. 14, 1971, and “the day was a blur to him” because he was “tripping off LSD,” according to the board’s report.
On that day, Shabazz and another man, Raymond White, shot the two guards as the guards transferred money from the trunk of a car to the store. The guards, Harry T. Jeffreys and Calvin Thorn, died at the hospital.
When police tracked down Shabazz at a nearby apartment, he had been wounded and was bleeding heavily. There, police found several bags, containing $19,325 in cash, as well as another $7,000 hidden in a vacuum.
Shabazz told police he had agreed to participate in the robbery so he could pay off a debt to a drug dealer.
A jury convicted Shabazz after just three hours of deliberation, and he was sentenced to death. The Supreme Judicial Court vacated his death sentence in 1976, and it was reduced to life without parole.
“He is now an old man who has spent half a century making himself a better person and the world a better place,” Shabazz’s lawyer, Mia Teitelbaum, told the Parole Board.
Shabazz said he thinks of the victims daily and feels deep remorse.
“He stated that after taking these two members from the community, he has dedicated himself to giving back what he can,” the board’s report said.
In its favorable recommendation, the board wrote that “board members acknowledge the role that Mr. Shabazz’s post traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction (which developed due to his service in Vietnam) played in these offenses.”
The board’s recommendation for commutation now goes to Governor Charlie Baker. If Baker agrees, the matter will go before the Governor’s Council, which has the ultimate say. If the Governor’s Council approves, the Parole Board would then have to decide whether to actually release Shabazz on parole.
Massachusetts governors have been notoriously reluctant to grant clemency for crimes, a sensitive topic in state politics since convicted murderer Willie Horton raped a woman while out of prison on a weekend furlough in 1987. The case shadowed then-Governor Michael Dukakis’ failed 1988 presidential campaign.
But Baker, after issuing new executive clemency guidelines in 2020, this year put forward commutations for two longtime prisoners, and recommended full pardons for four others convicted of crimes, raising hopes recently among Shabazz’s supporters that the governor would consider his clemency as well.
Material from Globe archives was used in this report.