Two local men with lengthy prison sentences celebrate re-entering society at Hampton church after pardon

Posted at 11:07 AM, Jan 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-17 17:18:11-05

HAMPTON, Va. — The Hampton NAACP and Coalition of Concerned Clergy 757 kicked off their MLK 2 Weeks of Giving for two Peninsula men who were oversentenced and given a conditional pardon.

Lawrence Stephens and Darnell Nolen were teenagers when a York County judge handed down the heavy sentence. Now, they're free thanks to help from the NAACP, and they hope their stories will help put a stop to excessive sentences, especially for Black and brown people.

"That day when the judge gave me that time, his words were just chilling, and honestly I felt like I died in the courtroom," said Stephens.

Stephens was 18 years old when a judge sentenced him to die in prison for a robbery that didn’t kill or seriously injure anyone.

"Especially considering everything that went on with the case, the details of the case, how we had white co-defendants that combined got less than 10 years," said Stephens.

Court records reveal Stephens and his best friend, Nolen, robbed two men in their York County home at gunpoint in 2001. They did it at the direction of Paul Michael Melendres, a white man who worked as Stephens' boss at a fast food restaurant.

The judge sentenced the mastermind to 10 years, and he sentenced Stephens to 1,800 years and 17-year-old Nolen to 33 years. The two have been in prison for two decades.

"In my heart, I felt like I would be OK, but just knowing that I got that time and my best friend got a life sentence, I was like, 'There's nothing that's going to be OK about this,'" Nolen said.

News 3 researched sentencing disparities from the U.S Sentencing Commission, and they said Black male offenders continue to receive longer sentences than white male offenders by 19%.

"Not too much has changed from 2001 to 2022. It has a little bit, but it's still going on. It's still guys in prison," said Nolen.

As both men fight for change, they thank former Gov. Ralph Northam for granting them a conditional pardon and NAACP leaders for a second chance at life.

Gaylene Kanoyton, president of the Hampton NAACP, said, "We want these two men to know that the community is behind them, and we want to make sure they're successful because they're going to give back to the community. They're going to help us with the youth."

"It takes a villlage to help them both men. Lawrence and Darnell stand ready to help the youth not to make the same choices that got them into prison." said Rev. Dr. Tremayne Johnson, president of the Coalition of Concerned Clergy 757.

"It's a blessing. It shows that you're never supposed to give up. Lawrence never gave up," said Nolen.

Stephens gave a message for those he harmed so many years ago.

"If they can find it in their heart to forgive me for the actions I took in this crime and I did commit..."

The NAACP said they're working to bring light to more cases of excessive sentences like Stephens and Nolen, starting with bringing forth new legislation. Leaders have also created a GoFundMe to raise money for Stephens and Nolen to help with housing, clothing, food and more.

Related: 'Virginians are forgiving people who believe in second chances': Northam granted more than 1,200 pardons during time in office