Gov. Northam grants freedom to Peninsula man sentenced to 33 years for robbery

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Posted at 4:54 PM, Jan 06, 2022

WAVERLY, Va. — A Peninsula man sentenced to 33 years in prison for an armed robbery that did not end in death or serious injury is on his way home.

News 3 confirmed Thursday Darnell Nolen, who has served nearly 20 years in prison, was granted a conditional pardon by Governor Ralph Northam.

According to court records, Nolen was 17 years old when he and an 18-year-old Lawrence Stephens robbed two men at gunpoint inside a York County home in 2001. The teenagers ransacked the home for drugs and money at the direction of Paul Michael Melendres, a white man and co-worker of Stephens.

While the judge sentenced Melendres to 10 years for orchestrating the crime, he sentenced Nolen to 33 years and Stephens to three life sentences, totaling more than 1,800 years.

“I was just a teenage kid, and I made a poor decision in my life,” Stephens told News 3 investigator Jessica Larche in December after learning he was pardoned. “I always wondered, if I don’t get out of here, what will I do? Some nights [I had] thoughts of suicide.”

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

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

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 reveal 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 is going to be to help people in these situations the same way people helped me,” Stephens 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. He told News 3 he will continue granting pardons until his term ends next week.