Pardoned Virginia man: ‘The window of racism in the justice system was opened and I was freed’

National

HAMPTON, V.A. (WAVY) — Carrying a box that contains everything he owns, 38-year old Lawrence Jacob Stephens, on the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 12, walked away from the end of a 20-year nightmare.

“The small possessions that I had [books, notebooks, toothpaste and other items] was just a reflection of what my life was for the past 20 years: in a box and a number,” Stephens said.

At the Sussex Correctional Centers I and II, Lawrence Jacob Stephens was known as inmate #1107904.

Wavy photo: Regina Mobley
Lawrence Stephens was released from prison on Jan. 12, 2022 after receiving a conditional pardon from Gov. Ralph Northam. (WAVY photo)

Twenty years ago, 18-year-old Stephens and his 17-year-old friend Darnell Nolen were two of five people involved in what he describes as a drug-related home invasion robbery in York County. Two in the group, who are white, got little to no time and the accused mastermind, who is also white, got 10 years. Nolen got 35 years and Stephens got an off-the-charts sentence of 1,823 years in prison.

Pardoned Darnell Nolen speaks with his mother Linda,and Rebecca Winn and Gaylene Kanoyton of the Hampton NAACP (WAVY photo: Regina Mobley)

10 On Your Side’s Regina Mobley interviewed Stephens on his first full day of freedom Thursday. It was a day that started early in the morning in a barber’s chair at Custom Kutz on Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk. Family members wanted to make sure Stephens looked presentable for his first in-depth interview since being released from prison. The barber, Vinny Vine, gave Stephens a “bald fade,” which is his new look for his new life as a free man for the first time in 20 years.

In an interview outside a family member’s home in Hampton, Stephens spoke about the day he was sentenced to 1,823 years in prison.

Lawrence Stephens (pictured with his sister) was released from prison on Jan. 12, 2022 after receiving a conditional pardon from Gov. Ralph Northam. (WAVY photo)

Regina Mobley: “Tell me what Judge [Prentis] Smiley said to you as he was delivering the sentence?”

Lawrence Stephens: “I was told by Judge Smiley, as he delivered the sentence, that because of the crimes that I committed, and the nature of the crimes, he felt that I should not spend another day in my life in society… And this is what he told an 18-year-old kid. I had never lived my life before. So before I could even live, he basically took my life… I died in the courtroom.”

Under Virginia sentencing guidelines, Stephens should have received no more than 13 years in prison. The four-digit sentence of 1,823 years had a devastating ripple effect on his family. His sister, Sarah Stephens, described how the severe sentence affected her life.

“The moment he lost his life, I felt like I lost part of mine,” said Sarah Stephens, who owns a television production company in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Photo courtesy: Sarah Stephens
Lawrence Stephens was released from prison on Jan. 12, 2022 after receiving a conditional pardon from Gov. Ralph Northam. (Photo courtesy: Sarah Stephens)

Stephens has two daughters, 21-year-old Alyssa and 19-year-old Makayla, who held her father tightly as they walked along the streets of a family member’s home in Hampton. Stephens did not meet Makayla until she was four years old. He missed all their milestones: the first steps, first grade, graduation and first boyfriends.

“It was kind of frustrating not having him around, knowing how supportive he was,” said Makayla.

Stephens offered thanks to Karen Morrison of Fighting 4 Freedom; Gaylene Kanoyton, president of the Hampton NAACP; Rebecca Winn, chair of the Hampton NAACP redress committee; and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who issued the conditional pardon for Stephens’ release.

Northam, who is a pediatrician, came under fire when decades-old photos from his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook surfaced that purportedly shows Northam in blackface. Northam has denied it was him in the photo which also shows a person dressed in a Ku Klux Klan-style costume.

Just recently, Northam told The Washington Post he is 99% sure he knows the person who’s in the blackface racist photo.

Governor Klan Blackface_1549298728914

In his final State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night, Northam proudly announced that he had pardoned more than one thousand people, more than several other Virginia governors combined.

Stephens said he believes that Northam’s political survival of the blackface scandal paved the way for the pardons.

Regina Mobley: “Interestingly, the man who pardoned you, Gov. Ralph Northam, had controversy of his own dealing with blackface and a Klan costume.”

Lawrence Stephens: “I think it helped him to understand that people do deserve second chances. I think that is why I was given a second chance… I’m just fortunate to have a second chance to be home with my family, to wake up in the morning to be with my daughter and to be able to think about what I want to do with my life.”

His sister has established a GoFundMe account to help her brother establish a new life.

“He needs transportation, he needs health insurance, and he needs to help support his children. As long as I have a roof over my head, Lawrence will have a roof over his head,” said Sarah Stephens.

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