After serving 19 years behind bars, Lawrence Stephens received a conditional pardon from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, cutting short a life sentence that civil rights activists say was racially motivated.
Stephens and several others were convicted of robbery. At sentencing York County Judge Prentis Smiley Jr. gave the Black defendants sentences that went beyond the guidelines that included Stephens being sentenced to 1,823 years.
“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,” WAVY quoted Gaylene Kanoyton, president of the Hampton, Va., NAACP.
According to reports, Stephens, then 18, was homeless and working multiple jobs on Nov. 13, 2001, when he joined co-workers at his restaurant job who decided to break into a house. An older white co-worker was allegedly the mastermind behind the plot but didn’t go inside the targeted house.
The white participant in the robbery received the standard sentence, which ranged from 10 to 13 years. Stephens and the other Black co-defendants received tougher sentences, including Darnell Nolan who received a 35-year sentence.
Kanoyton brought in attorney Rebecca Winn to examine the case and to file a petition for Stephens’ conditional pardon, according to WAVY. Winn discovered problems with both the prosecution and the defense.
“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,” the petition stated.
Winn said the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board convicted Stephens’ court-appointed lawyer “for his unethical conduct in his representation of Mr. Stephens.”
As for the judge, Winn said under sentencing guidelines Stephens should have been sentenced to 13 years in prison.