HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY)– On Monday afternoon, the NAACP and the Coalition of Concerned Clergy kicked off their Martin Luther King Jr. Two Weeks of Giving.
For the event, people gathered at New Hope Baptist Church off Big Bethel Road in Hampton.
The congregation welcomed two inmates who were unfairly sentenced and given a conditional pardon. The backbone of their fight for freedom was the Hampton NAACP, which worked with former Gov. Ralph Northam to secure the pardons.
“Freedom isn’t free — it’s not free at all. We still have a lot of work to do, especially in our criminal justice system. Mass incarceration is real,” said Hampton Branch NAACP President Gaylene Kanoyton.
Lawrence Stephens was sentenced at 18 years old to 1,823 years in prison, and Darnell Nolen was sentenced at 17 years old to 35 years.
Stephens and Nolen were two of five people involved in what has been described as a drug-related home invasion robbery in York County in 2001. The other defendants, one of whom was called the “mastermind” of the crime, received slimmer sentences.
“Just going in there young, I never thought I’d see this day. It’s a beautiful thing. It was wrong, we shouldn’t have been sentenced to that much time that young being first-time offenders,” said Nolen.
“I think about Rev. King and how he had to struggle and fight himself and in times of adversity just keeping his faith and keeping hope,” Stephens said.
Stephens says he will soon move to North Carolina with his sister, but the two of them have decided to find a way to mentor youth in the community.
As for the Hampton NAACP, Kanoyton says there are still men and women locked up unfairly — and they won’t stop pushing for their freedom, too.
“We know the next four years are going to be a fight for us but we’re ready to fight,” she said.
If you’re interested in helping the two men get on their feet, The NAACP has started a GoFundMe page for them. If you’d like to donate, click here.