PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — In 2001, 18-year-old Lawrence Jacob Stephens was arrested and later convicted in a home invasion robbery in York County.
The alleged mastermind behind the robbery, who is white, got 10 years, a codefendant got 35 years, and Stephens got a staggering 1,823 years.
“I deserved to be punished for the crime that I committed. It felt like for me to spend the rest of my life in prison for a crime that I committed — no one was seriously injured or killed — I just thought the sentence was excessive,” said Stephens in a telephone interview from the Sussex II Prison in Waverly, Virginia.
Under sentencing guidelines, he should have received no more than 13 years, but Judge Prentis Smiley threw the book at Stephens over and over with a four-digit sentence.
Gov. Ralph Northam last month issued a conditional pardon after studying a petition prepared by the Hampton NAACP. Stephens is now 38 years old.
WAVY’s Regina Mobley: “Do you feel racism played a role in what happened to you?”
Lawrence Jacob Stephens: “Yeah, I do honestly. It was my first time ever being in this type of position. Just due to the history of what it’s like for Black and brown people in this country when it comes to the justice system, you know, I felt like it was something that was normal. [However] looking at the disparity and the differences in the sentence that I received as opposed to my white co-defendants, I believe there was a lot of bias and it was an unjust [and] unfair sentence due to discrimination and race bias.”
On Jan. 15, Northam is out and Glenn Youngkin is in as Virginia’s 74th governor. The Republican has vowed to ban Critical Race Theory in schools. However, Stephens says there are critical lessons to learn from his case.
“The general public has to be educated, and not just about sending Black and brown people to prison… but it’s also about the education of the judges, the lawyers, the prosecutors and everybody else who is involved who don’t necessarily take the time to understand the backgrounds of the people they are actually sentencing,” said Stephens.
Once released, Stephens will land in the open arms of his sister Sarah Stephens and live in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In a telephone interview, she described praying last year that her brother would be released from prison.
“I went around my home; I fasted and prayed pleading the blood of Jesus. Three weeks later, Karen Morrison called me,” said Sarah Stephens. Morrison is the chief executive officer of Fighting 4 Freedom. The sister says with Morrison on board, things started rolling in her brother’s favor. “
It’s something about her spirit… This woman is going to help me,” she said.
The Hampton NAACP joined the effort and in September, attorney Rebecca Winn, chair of the redress committee, presented a petition for a conditional pardon. Northam granted the pardon in mid-December.
Stephens will move to Charlotte and work with his sister, who owns a television production company. She has established a Gofundme account to help her brother with the transition.
He also has plans to return to prison to help others who have been swept up and locked out of life through mass incarceration.
“My case is just one of hundreds of thousands in this state, of this country alone, where judges have gone outside the guidelines for young Black boys and girls in this country,” he said.
Stephens is excited and grateful to the people who righted a wrong in Virginia.
“It was really a long time coming with the help of my amazing team: my advocate Karen Morrison of Fighting 4 Freedom, of course, my attorney Rebecca Winn, and Ms. Gaylene Kanoyton with the NAACP. A lot of people made it possible for me to be in this position,” Stephens said.
Late Wednesday, the president of the Hampton NAACP notified WAVY-TV that the only other Black codefendant in Lawrence Jacob Stephen’s case has been granted a conditional pardon.
Darnell Nolen was also a teenager when he was arrested for the home invasion robbery in York County. Of the three white co-defendants only one, the so-called mastermind of the crime, had to serve prison time and it was only 10 years.
Nolen’s attorney, Rebecca Winn, chair of the Hampton NAACP legal redress committee, picked up Nolen Thursday from the Keen Mountain Correctional Center in the far southwest corner of Virginia. Nolen’s mother, Linda, told 10 On Your Side’s Regina Mobley once they return to Hampton, she is going to prepare a meal of pig’s feet and potato salad. However, Nolen quickly interrupted to say he no longer eats pork. There was a roar of laughter in their car as the trio made the seven-hour drive back to Hampton.
Nolen’s pardon came with lightning speed. Winn filed the petition only five days ago, and Nolen received the notification of the conditional pardon just on Wednesday. Winn, who also represents Stephens, has contacted officials at Sussex II to determine when he will be released from the Waverly, Virginia, facility.
On the ride home Mr. Nolen told Regina Mobley: “I want to thank Governor Northam. If it were not for him and Rebecca [Winn] I would probably still be in prison and I thank him from the bottom of my heart and I definitely will not let him down,” said Nolen.