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."
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.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: M Kady | March 19, 2008 10:46 AM
Posted by: was-there | March 19, 2008 11:31 AM
Posted by: Just asking | March 19, 2008 8:00 PM
Posted by: a mother loves | March 20, 2008 9:05 AM
Posted by: river city | March 20, 2008 10:05 AM
Posted by: river city | March 20, 2008 10:06 AM
Posted by: Stick | March 20, 2008 2:10 PM
Posted by: fahed | March 26, 2008 9:47 AM
Posted by: Jus | April 23, 2008 11:52 AM
The comments to this entry are closed.