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A Virginia judge sentenced him to life in prison for robbery. The governor found that unfair.

Lawrence Jacob Stephens
Posted at 10:54 AM, Dec 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-23 10:54:27-05

YORK COUNTY, Va. – A Hampton man sentenced to die in prison for a 2001 York County armed robbery will be a free man in 2022.

“Christmas came early this year,” Lawrence Jacob Stephens, who was 18 years old when convicted 20 years ago, said from prison during a phone interview with WTKR. “I'm so excited.”

Stephens and fellow teenager Darnell Nolen robbed two men in their home in York County in 2001, according to court documents. The victims were not killed nor seriously injured, but Stephens and Nolen robbed them at gunpoint and bound them with tape to keep them from running away.

“I just want them to know that wholeheartedly, I'm sorry,” Stephens said about his actions. “I hope that someday they'll be able to forgive me in their hearts for what I did if they haven't already.”

Stephens and Nolen also ransacked the victims’ home for money and drugs at the direction of Paul Michael Melendres.

Melendres and Stephens worked together at a Hampton Roads fast food restaurant.

Melendres, who is white, received 10 years for orchestrating the crime.

Nolen was sentenced to 33 years in prison.

Judge Prentis Smiley sentenced Stephens to three life sentences plus 23 years.

“You do not deserve to re-enter society at any time during your natural life,” Judge Smiley told Stephens during his 2001 sentencing hearing. “If you are ever released by the Department of Corrections, in their wisdom, it would not be at the direction of this court.”

Stephens, who has served 20 years behind bars for the crime, said he agreed he deserved punishment, but not life in prison.

“I was just a teenage kid, and I made a poor decision in my life,” he said. “I always wondered, if I don’t get out of here, what will I do? Some nights [I had] thoughts of suicide.”

Stephens said at the advisement of his public defender, he pleaded guilty and waived his right to a trial by jury.

He said the attorney assured him he would get a more lenient sentence of about 13 years in prison, but Judge Smiley went well beyond the sentencing guidelines.

Court records also revealed Stephens’ attorney was eventually reprimanded by the Virginia Bar Association for inadequate representation.

Stephens said his mission, once he’s released next year, is to help other people serving excessive sentences.

“My purpose and my calling in life are going to be to help people in these situations the same way people helped me,” he said. “With Governor Northam giving me this second chance to get my life back, it’s a huge blessing for me.”

Northam has issued nearly 700 pardons during his term as governor, focusing on excessive sentences and wrongful convictions.