John Labanara's Death
Arnie King's Freedom

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The Boston Globe published a front page story yesterday about Arnie King, a member of the Growing Together group at Bay State prison.  This message summarizes the article, followed by my comment.

In 1971, when Arnie was 18, high on drugs and alcohol, he murdered a complete stranger, 26 year-old John Labanara.  

Arnie KingNow, after 36 years, King is asking for a second chance. He is the first inmate whose plea to be set free has made it to the desk of Governor Deval Patrick, and his attempt has met with the unanimous approval of the state Pardons Board. King's supporters include the Massachusetts Black Legislative Caucus, academics, ministers, and community leaders.

John LabanaraThe victim's family, the Police Commissioner, and District Attorney oppose King's release.  "He snuffed out a life that was full of promise and hope for no reason whatsoever," said Stephen Bowen, a close friend of the victim. "For all those people who have sympathetic ears to Arnold King, let them have one of their children killed and call me and tell me they forgive."

King, whose five prior commutation requests were denied, said he is sorry for killing Labanara.  "I was young, on drugs and alcohol, it was more that I was out of control," said King, a high school dropout who was raised in Portsmouth, N.H., and started drinking and doing drugs by the time he was 13.  King said he had difficulty adjusting to prison initially, but changed after getting educated, joining self-help groups, and founding programs that involve counseling high school students and other inmates.

"What I want people to understand is there is a possibility for change," King said. "I want to portray myself not as a teenage killer, but as a person who has done a lot of work and tried to make myself a better person. I think I have done that, and other people think I've done that."

Commutations and pardons are politically risky, and politicians over the last 20 years have been generally unwilling to grant any leniency for inmates. Patrick has cautiously approached criminal justice issues, emphasizing his belief in rehabilitation, while not wanting to appear soft on crime.

"I can't believe he's been rehabilitated one bit," said Bowen, Labanara's friend. "He's just a conman who is . . . trying to get out on the street."

Punishment and Forgiveness

I've known Arnie King for four years and consider him a friend. It's no surprise that he has gained the support of hundreds of community activists, academics, and political leaders. He is a warm, thoughtful, and articulate man, with a friendly smile and engaging personality. In our group meetings, Arnie is always a source of encouragement and support. He has done his own difficult work and participated many times in group processes for other members and outside volunteers. In short, Arnie is a wonderful human being.

The more difficult question is whether, having violently taken a life without provocation, Arnie can ever earn or deserve his freedom. John Labanara's loss was forever. Why should Arnie's punishment not also be forever? In granting Arnie King Commutation would the Governor betray the Labanara family and their loss?

The mechanism for a Governor's commutation serves a worthwhile purpose. It allows men like Arnie King to strive for personal redemption in life. This benefits the people of the Commonwealth by making our prison facilities safer and our communities saner. By the strict standards established by the Pardons Board, Arnie King has earned his commutation.

My work in prison and with descendents of survivors and perpetrators of the Nazi Holocaust has taught me that there is a type of forgiveness that has negative consequences and another that is powerfully beneficial. Harmful forgiveness is a form of vengeance thinly disguised as an act of virtue. It occurs when the forgiver adopts a superior position, as in the 'good one' absolving the 'bad one' of guilt. Healing forgiveness is based, not on judgments about virtue and sin, but on deep compassion and humility. It restores balance through the offender's acknowledgement of guilt, expression of remorse, and offer of restitution. The victim's loved ones honor the loss by allowing the sweetness of life to be restored to the living. This forgiveness is made without airs of superiority or righteousness. It leaves the perpetrator with his guilt and dignity.

It is understandable that John Labanara's loved ones feel closer to him when they say, "Because you died so tragically, I will avenge the injustice of your death." His death might be better honored by Arnie King. Perhaps Arnie's work in the community can stay the hand of another would-be murder and spare the life of another random victim. That would be a more worthy memorial to John Labanara than having Arnie die in prison.

Arnie King does not need false forgiveness. Instead, what we all need is to understand that vengeance does not change the fate of the living or the dead for the better. What will serve healing in both families is acceptance of the past. That and compassionate acknowledgment of the existential equality of all people and the unknowable vastness of life.  

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