Gail Jennes
October 23, 1978 12:00 PM

Twenty-one years ago, on the morning he was scheduled to die in the electric chair, convicted murderer Hank Arsenault made a desperate pact with God. Kneeling beside his bunk on Death Row at the Massachusetts state prison in Walpole, he vowed to spend the rest of his life keeping kids out of jail if somehow he were spared execution. Miraculously, his prayers were answered. Just 16 minutes before Arsenault was to die, Lt. Gov. Robert Murphy, an opponent of capital punishment, who was running the state while the governor was down with the flu, phoned to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment. Arsenault, who had already watched 13 witnesses to his execution file silently into the Death House, was overwhelmed by the unexpected reprieve. “Ironically, I was able to walk down to the chair on my own,” he recalls, “but the guards had to carry me back to my cell.”

Since that night Arsenault, now 51, has been serving a different kind of life sentence—and trying to make good on his promise. Though still imprisoned, the onetime high school dropout is now only 11 credits short of a Ph.D. in child psychology. Since 1966, when prison officials finally agreed to let him counsel youthful offenders, Arsenault claims he has talked to some 130,000 young people, from drug addicts to runaways. He uses his own blighted life as a grim example. “I reprimand them, put them through my trauma and then love them,” says Arsenault. “I will spend the balance of my life talking to as many kids as I can so that not one of them will become a Hank Arsenault.” Last May he addressed 2,000 students at a Lowell, Mass. high school. “You could hear a pin drop,” recalls one of the teachers. “Ted Kennedy and Ed Brooke have been here, but there’s never been a reaction like this.”

Born in Waltham, Mass., placed in an orphanage at the age of four months, Arsenault bounced through 26 foster families before hitting the road at 16. He left behind a dismal state home he calls “the worst prison I’ve ever been in.” (He was raped twice before he was 10.) Already a habitual petty criminal, he joined the Navy in 1944—”to get three meals a day and make friends”—and served as a gunner on a tanker at Normandy. Then, in 1946, after a series of AWOLs, Arsenault was court-martialed, given an eight-year sentence (later suspended) and dishonorably discharged. Arrested later in Florida for stealing a half-dozen oranges, he was sentenced to six years on the chain gang. He managed to escape, but then had to serve 39 months in the Atlanta federal penitentiary for it. Back in Massachusetts in 1952 he met another ex-con, Arthur Devlin. They and a third man plotted to rob a local Newton gambler, but the plan misfired when he and Devlin, both armed, marched up to the wrong house. In the ensuing panic, says Arsenault, he accidentally shot and killed the young lawyer who came to the door. “He flew at me,” Arsenault recalls. “All I saw was a white shirt in the darkness. He tried to pull my gun toward him and it went off seven inches from his chest. He was dead before he hit the floor. I ran three or four miles through the snow, right into a cordon of police cars.”

Now at a minimum security prison in Norfolk, Mass., Arsenault is appealing to have his sentence commuted. (His two accomplices were paroled in 1975.) Though he hopes to continue youth counseling as part of a work-release program, he now has another reason for wanting out: He plans to be married next month. The bride-to-be is Lorraine Christman, 40, a widowed mother of three children whose daughter Debbie introduced her to Arsenault following one of his high school appearances. Eventually, he says, he wants to build a “happy house for unwanted kids to give them love and discipline. Meanwhile, I want to be a father to Lorraine’s children and get my self-respect back.” Is he bitter about his 30 years behind bars? “Well, it’s hard to survive any prison without broken bones and broken emotions,” he says. “But I left all my bitterness on Death Row. Somebody answered my plea.”

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