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Three Strikes And--23 Years Later--She's Safe At Home

After 23 years locked up, 11 of them in waist chains and handcuffs, Ollin Crawford -- the longest-serving inmate at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women who never murdered anyone -- headed home. Released yesterday afternoon, she plans to celebrate Easter with her family, including her adult son, who spent only the first seven days of his life with his mother before she was taken from him.

"I never held a cellphone before," Crawford said as she climbed into her brother's car. "I've got roses, I've got balloons and I'm going home."

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) told me yesterday that he had signed a pardon for Crawford, who was convicted in 1985 of robbing four Fairfax County banks in an eight-week period, because "she has served enough time for those crimes."

Crawford, who robbed the banks with a fake grenade, was the first black woman in Virginia to be convicted under the state's three-time loser law, which ruled out parole. The first white woman convicted under the law, Sue Kennon -- who robbed four pharmacies with a toy gun -- was freed seven years ago after serving 14 years in confinement.

Kaine said he was "extremely troubled by the allegation" of racial inequity in the two cases. He concluded, however, that the primary problem with Crawford's case was not a matter of race but of a legal misfire. "Both the prosecutor and the judge in her case never contemplated that she should serve this much time," the governor said. "They did not think she was being sentenced in a way that would make her ineligible for parole."

"Sue Kennon got out because she just had more resources than Ollin," says Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William), one of several dozen state legislators from both parties who rallied to Crawford's cause in recent months. "It wasn't because Kennon is white, but because her family was rich and could bring pressure to bear."

I've been writing about Crawford's case for five years, and I have to admit that I was never confident she would get out before the end of her 70-year term.

Ollin Crawford believed. Whether because of her religious conviction, her sparkling optimism or the support of her siblings and a band of people who never stopped writing letters and trooping to Richmond to plead for a few minutes of the governor's time, Crawford somehow became ever more certain that she would one day see the world again.

"You get what you give," she told me when I visited her at the prison in Goochland, in central Virginia, in December. "Respect breeds respect. Inmates were always telling me, 'I wish you would go before me,' and all I could do was watch them leave."

For the first years in prison, Crawford was angry, deeply so. "It took me nine years to come to understand that the officers didn't bring me here, the governor didn't put me here," she said.

In the past year, Crawford decided that her time to go home was near, so she launched a weight-loss competition with her brother and sister and lost 24 pounds.

Yesterday, her brother James and her other siblings joined Crawford's daughter in picking her up at the prison gate. When I spoke to James just before he left Washington to get his sister, he was so stunned, so shaken, he could barely inhale.

It has been a terribly long wait. Six years ago, Kaine, then the lieutenant governor, told Gov. Mark Warner that Crawford's case merited "special attention." But governors tend to be wary of using their power to commute sentences; the political consequences if the freed prisoner goes bad can be devastating.

"You're basically trying to make a judgment that they're going to live an exemplary life," Kaine told me yesterday. In Crawford's case, people from a range of backgrounds have concluded that she is a person of character who managed to grow, even in the dead soil of the prison campus.

Some mentioned the time she found the keys to a state vehicle lying on the prison grounds and turned them in to authorities. Others said they were impressed that she spent years training fellow inmates in the skills they would need upon being released -- only to watch as they left and she stayed behind.

A Democratic legislator from Norfolk, Del. Algie Howell, took a special interest in Crawford after reading about her in December. He visited her, spoke with her attorney, former Del. Dick Black, a tough-as-nails Loudoun Republican, and rallied his colleagues in Richmond to her cause.

What finally won Crawford her freedom? Her family members say they think it was the combination of the coverage in this column, the advocacy by Howell and Black, and the intercession of the Lord.

But I think it was Crawford's impossible optimism, her calm and her core. In a place where people are mean to one another for sport and self-defense, Crawford was beloved. The guards, the administrators and the warden became part of her lobbying campaign. So did her fellow inmates.

She's moving in with her daughter. On Sunday, she will worship with friends and family at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Southeast Washington, where she lived before she went away.

But first, there will be hugs and tears, and a visit to the grave of her mother, who died while Crawford was in prison, and dinner with her father. It was to be a meal she requested long ago: fried chicken and champagne.

And then Crawford intends to make a whale of a cake for the son she never really knew, a birthday cake to make up for all the cakes she never tasted.

Join me at noon tomorrow for "Potomac Confidential" at http://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  March 19, 2008; 7:55 AM ET
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Comments

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This is so much b.s. How about checking with the employees of the banks who were threatened with these grenades and see how they are doing? How about telling us why this thuggish woman was kept in shackles for eleven years? How about telling us that only the worst disciplinary cases are restrained at all while in prison? But of course that would deflect from your liberal sob-story tale.

Posted by: M Kady | March 19, 2008 10:46 AM

I was at VCCW with Ollin & trust & believe she was NOT kept in cuffs, & restraints for 11 yrs like a barbaric animal.She was housed in an enclosed bldg. with a fence *& barb-wire for a few yrs. but because VCCW has no security fence, and Fluvanna was not open at this time so high-security inmates were housed in a different area for security purposes. Mr. Fisher need to better research Ollie's comments before deceiving the public.

Posted by: was-there | March 19, 2008 11:31 AM

Three strikes, Ms. Crawford. You want to commit the crimes, you must do the times. Maybe someday, someone will stick a grenade in your face so you know what those bank employees went through. You gonna sue da man next?

Posted by: Just asking | March 19, 2008 8:00 PM

Thank you for releasing her. She did not hurt anyone. I believe this is racial. You can not clean this up. Thanks Tim Kaine for caring. Some one can murder or sell drugs and gets lesser time. She did not hurt or sold drugs and spend half of her life in prison. My son have his grandmom now!

Posted by: a mother loves | March 20, 2008 9:05 AM

I'm glad the inequity has been resolved, but I must question if Ms. Crawford's "reglious convictions" were so strong, wouldn't those convictions have prevented her from robbing a bank?

Posted by: river city | March 20, 2008 10:05 AM

I'm glad the inequity has been resolved, but I must question if Ms. Crawford's "reglious convictions" were so strong, wouldn't those convictions have prevented her from robbing a bank?

Posted by: river city | March 20, 2008 10:06 AM

I always thought it was up to the judicial system to fix the punishment for crimes committed and ajudicated. Your talents amaze me, you're not only an expert in constitutional law, education and politics, you now have judicial expertise as well. Why are you wasting time writing?

Posted by: Stick | March 20, 2008 2:10 PM

good job , you know .forwards always

Posted by: fahed | March 26, 2008 9:47 AM

Some of you forget that the punishment should fit the crime. 70 years for robbing a few banks is excessive when you consider no one was physically harmed. The mental anguish of which you speak is real and every victim had opportunities to make their feelings known. Additionally, some of your comments seem to indicate she spent no time behind bars. 23 years is a great deal of time to think about the wrong you have done. It is also an adequate punishment for Ms. Crawfords crimes. This has been somewhat racially charged based on the similar plight of Sue Kennon, a white, suburban housewife, who went on a robbery spree and was later set free. Every article, including my reference, made sure to describe her as a white suburban housewife who went down the wrong path. The fact is she was a drug abusing addict hell bent on getting high. Nonetheless, her family had money and influence on her side. But her sentence of 48 years was also exessive for her crimes committed. She was able to secure release 7 years earlier than Ms. Crawford because of that influence. These women WERE thugs, they WERE dangers to society. Now they've been properly rehabilitated. We should applaud that fact that the system worked for a change. You should go about trying to improve the system instead of lambasting the same system you (or someone you know) have or will depend on one day. If it means getting off of your butt (and your computer) and actually taking time to meet with the Govenor or prison officials to give your own opinion on the matter, then do so. Drum up your own support for keeping such people behind bars. But don't attack a system that works because you did not like the outcome. My brother is in prison for the exact charges of Ms. Kennon and Ms. Crawford, but no one is singing his tune. For his first offence he got 40 years. he's been in prison since he was 19. No one is saying he should not have been punished, but using a toy gun to take all of $300 did not justify him being imprisioned for over half of his life. We would love to ramp up support for him, but he's a black male in the Virginia Correctional system. He's a danger by their, and probably your, standards. Yet, he has changed -- he had to -- he's grown from a child to a man within the walls of prison. We will petition this paper and the Virginia govenor for his release, but this may be a harder hill to climb than for the ladies.

Posted by: Jus | April 23, 2008 11:52 AM

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