‘My Main Thing Was Making It Out’: Virginia Man Who Was Told He ‘Gone be Alright’ After Receiving 20 Years Above Mandatory Minimum Speaks Out After Pardon

“I got the pardon, I was like, wow, I was so happy,” Darnell Nolen said after learning he was going home after serving 20 years of a 33-year prison sentence thanks to a conditional pardon granted by outgoing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

Nolen, who is Black, received a conditional pardon on Jan. 5 along with his co-defendant. Lawrence Stephens who is also Black, also received a conditional pardon on Jan. 12. Nolen and Stephens received much harsher prison sentences compared to the three other co-defendants in the case who were white.

“We were supposed to get 13 years and 6 months, which was the mandatory minimum,” Nolan said.

According to attorney Rebecca Winn, the pro bono counsel for Nolen and Stephens, in November 2001, then 17-year-old Nolen and 18-year-old Stephens were talked into breaking into a house in York County, Virginia, by an older white co-worker.

Nolen was sentenced to 33 years in prison while Stephens received 1,823 years for the robbery.

Winn says Nolen was spared a harsher sentence because he had a private attorney who managed to get a different judge for Nolen.

“Even with the different judge, who had the reputation of being the easiest one at that court, he still gets almost triple definitely over double what he was supposed to get,” Winn said of Nolen’s sentencing judge.

At sentencing Nolen expressed shock at his 33-year sentence telling ABS that he was “lost” at the proceeding.

Presumably speaking with his attorney at the time, he recalled, “I was like, ‘how much time did he give me?'” His attorney responded saying, “You got 30 years I think. You gone be alright.” A puzzled 17-year-old Nolen asked, “How I’mma be alright with 30 years?”

Meanwhile, Stephens was represented by a public defender and was sentenced by Judge Prentice Smiley who had a long track record of issuing harsher sentences for Black men. Smiley died in 2008.

Over the past 20 years, Nolen says he was focused on surviving in prison and making it outside of prison.

“At a young age going in there … my main thing was making it out,” he said.

Thanks to Winn and the Hampton, Virginia, NAACP, who petitioned for his and Stephens’ conditional pardons, he caught a lucky break. On Gov. Ralph Northam’s final day in office on January 15, 2022, he granted 1,200 pardons and restored civil rights to more than 126,000 people who completed their sentences and paid their debts to society a spokeswoman said.

Winn says getting a pardon is like hitting the lottery due to the high volume of pardon requests.

A pardon forgives a person for a criminal offense. Presidents issue pardons for federal crimes, and governors do the same for state-level offenses. Each state has its own pardon process.

In Virginia there are three different pardons. Absolute pardons are given when the governor is convinced a person is innocent. A simple pardon forgives a person for their crime, but the offense stays on their record. A conditional pardon modifies or ends a prison sentence, and the individual must meet certain conditions which can include meeting with a parole officer for a set number of years.

Gaylene Kanoyton, the Hampton NAACP president, says Nolen and Stephens’ case is further proof of the devasting impacts mass incarceration is having on Black and brown communities. She is working on a campaign to better educate Black communities on how to navigate the criminal justice system.

“Most of them are underserved, so they get a court-appointed attorney, the attorney doesn’t see them right away, and then they miss that court case, and they end up getting more time — it’s a system that needs to be fixed,” Kanoyton said.

Attorney Winn says for people who feel they’ve been caught in the justice system unfairly, in addition to requesting a pardon as an option, securing an attorney that will have your best interest at heart is vital.

She also says for people who believe they’ve received an unfair prison sentence they can appeal the judge’s decision for reconsideration, but for some criminal cases where a plea bargain is involved. there’s a catch and each state handles plea bargain cases its own way.

“If you enter into a plea bargain because you’re concerned going up on all the charges would result in a much harsher sentence than if you accept the plea agreement, then by accepting that plea agreement it then limits your right to appeal in Virginia,” Winn said.

Looking forward, in the days since being released from prison, Nolen is living with family near the Roanoke metropolitan area and continues to adjust to modern technology, including his new iPhone and his new job. He says eventually he wants to become a business owner and have a house of his own. “I wanna prove the naysayers wrong.”

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