Lawrence Stephens, 38, thought he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison after a Virginia judge sentenced him to 1,823 years in prison for a 2001 home invasion and robbery. Stephens received the lifeline of a lifetime when Hampton, Virginia, civil rights activists caught wind of his case.
On Nov. 13, 2001, a then-18-year-old Stephens was homeless, working two jobs, with a baby on the way, according to Rebecca Winn, the Hampton, Virginia, NAACP Legal Redress and Criminal Justice chairperson. She says while working at his restaurant job at the time, Stephens and another Black employee were talked into breaking into a house and committing a robbery. An older white co-worker masterminded the robbery but never went inside the home.
“They ended up taking off the top of my head, $500 and maybe a gun,” Winn said.
There were five co-defendants in all, but the white participants in the robbery received standard sentences averaging 10 to 13 years as the Black co-defendants received harsher sentences. Darnell Nolan, who was 17 years old at the time received a 33-year prison sentence and Stephens received 1,823 years.
“The two Black teenagers, their sentencing greatly exceeds that of the sentencing guidelines and that of their white codefendants,” Winn said of the lopsided prison sentences.
Winn says sentencing guidelines are put in place to reduce bias, but Judge Prentis Smiley Jr. had a long track record of delivering harsher sentences to Black men. Winn would not go as far to say Judge Smiley was racist, but she said, “the history speaks for itself.”
Judge Smiley died in 2008, but luckily for Stephens, he wasn’t going to die in prison if Winn and Hampton, Virginia NAACP President Gaylene Kanoyton had anything to do with his future. On Aug. 27, 2021, Winn filed a petition for a conditional pardon for Stephens. She didn’t know if Stephens’ pardon would make it through the thousands of pardons facing lame duck Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. On Dec. 17, 2021, Northam granted Stephens’ conditional pardon request, but his exact conditions are unclear at this time.
“There are three different types of pardons in Virginia of very limited scope, so it’s created this backlog in which there’s a lot of injustice within the system that have been brought to people’s attention, but it’s still like rolling the dice,” Winn said.
Winn and Kanoyton say Stephens’ case is just a small example of the many injustices disproportionately impacting countless Black men and women interacting with the criminal justice system. They hope more Black communities better educate themselves on how the criminal justice system works and not just during traffic stops but also in the courts.
Winn says she’s looking forward to Stephens being able to enjoy his freedom and do small things many free people take for granted such as walk in the snow and enjoy his family. Stephens is expected to be freed from prison in the coming weeks.
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