HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — Lawrence Stephens was a homeless restaurant worker and only 18 years old in 2001 when he and several others pulled off a home invasion robbery in the Seaford section of York County. According to his attorney, no shots were fired and no one was injured.
The Hampton man and several others were arrested and tried in Circuit Court, but the sentence York Country Judge Prentis Smiley Jr. handed down to Stephens defied sentencing guidelines by hundreds of years.
According to an article in the Daily Press, Smiley retired from the bench and died in 2008. In 1998, he presided over the capital murder trial of Daryl Atkins. The outcome led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2002 which bars executions of those with intellectual disabilities.
This year, Gaylene Kanoyton, president of the Hampton NAACP, brought in attorney Rebecca Winn, the legal redress chair, to investigate and file a petition for a conditional pardon. The Stephens case is just one case on the civil rights group’s radar.
“Racism, it’s not a level playing field … we still have many inmates in the same situation,” said Kanoyton, who is also probing a Suffolk case.
In the petition, Winn revealed inadequate representation from the prosecution and the defense. She wrote: “I was especially alarmed to read that the prosecutor was not even sure of the full scope of the role that Mr. Stephens played during the acts in question apart from the role played by his co-defendants.”
Additionally, Winn said the court-appointed attorney who represented Stephens was later found guilty of failing to properly represent his client.
“He actually eventually [was] convicted by the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board for his unethical conduct in his representation of Mr. Stephens,” Winn said.
Winn says, for example, the white mastermind of the crime, Paul Melendres, got 10 years. 17-year-old Darnell Nolen, who is Black, got 35 years, and Stephens got an off-the-chart sentence of 1,823 years in prison. Under sentencing guidelines, said Winn, Stephens should have been sentenced to 13 years in prison.
The petition for a pardon was filed in September and last Friday, after 19 years behind bars, Stephens learned Gov. Ralph Northam issued a conditional pardon.
He will be a free man in 30 to 60 days.
Kanoyton and Winn say they will continue to fight the system of mass incarceration of brown and Black men.
“As long as we have judges that are going to sit on the bench and wrongly sentence people depending on their race to sentence them to unjustly years to be in prison we have to keep on fighting,” Kanoyton said.
The petition for the conditional pardon was provided to 10 On Your Side and details where attorneys felt the court erred in its sentence for Stephens, as well as his plans for reentry into society if he’s released from prison. It also discussed how Stephens’ original attorney was reprimanded by the state bar.
10 On Your Side also obtained numerous letters from those in support of Stephens’ release. Those are included in the document below.