After a Virginia judge sentenced him to 1,823 years in prison for a 2001 home invasion and robbery, Lawrence Stephens, 38, believed he would spend the rest of his life in prison. When civil rights advocates in Hampton, Virginia, heard about Stephens’ predicament, they gave him a lifeline.
According to Rebecca Winn, the NAACP Legal Redress and Criminal Justice chairman in Hampton, Virginia, on Nov. 13, 2001, a then-18-year-old Stephens was homeless, working two jobs, and expecting a baby. Stephens and another Black employee were coaxed into breaking into a house and conducting a robbery, she claims while working at his restaurant employment at the time. The robbery was planned by an older white coworker, but he never entered the house.
“They ended up taking off the top of my head, $500 and maybe a gun,” Winn said.
Although there were five co-defendants in total, the white robbery participants received conventional sentences ranging from 10 to 13 years, but the black co-defendants received harsher punishments. Darnell Nolan, who was 17 at the time, was sentenced to 35 years in jail, while Stephens was sentenced to 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.
Although Winn claims that sentencing standards are in place to minimize bias, Judge Prentis Smiley Jr. has a history of handing down harsher penalties to Black offenders. “The history speaks for itself,” Winn said, but she wouldn’t go so far as to say Judge Smiley was racist.
Judge Smiley died in 2008, but Stephens was spared from prison if Winn and Hampton, Virginia NAACP President Gaylene Kanoyton had anything to do with his fate. Winn submitted a petition for Stephens’ conditional pardon on Aug. 27, 2021. She had no idea if Stephens’ pardon would be granted among the thousands of pardons that lame-duck Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was considering. 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 has been brought to people’s attention, but it’s still like rolling the dice,” Winn said.
Stephens’ case, according to Winn and Kanoyton, is just one of many injustices that disproportionately affect numerous Black men and women who engage with the criminal justice system. They hope that more Black communities, not just during traffic stops, but also in the courts, gain a greater understanding of how the criminal justice system operates.
Winn says she’s looking forward to Stephens being able to enjoy his independence and do simple things that many free people take for granted, like walking in the snow and spending time with his family. In the next weeks, Stephens is anticipated to be released from prison.