The Gift Of Justice Doesn't Cost a Dime

Ollin Crawford, left, and siblings James Crawford and Robin Haynes meet at the prison visiting room. Ollin Crawford has served 23 years for robbing four banks.
Ollin Crawford, left, and siblings James Crawford and Robin Haynes meet at the prison visiting room. Ollin Crawford has served 23 years for robbing four banks. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
By Marc Fisher
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Six Christmases ago, Ollin Crawford was told she would finally be going home. The lawyers said Virginia's parole board was ready to agree that the state had done Crawford an injustice back in 1984, that her 70-year sentence for robbing four banks in quick succession in Fairfax County was excessive and that it was wrong to apply the state's three-time loser law to someone with no prior felonies.

The release was portrayed as such a sure thing that Crawford gave fellow inmates everything she owned. But she did not go home. Murderers by the dozen have come and gone from the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland. Crawford remains. She is the institution's third-longest-serving inmate; the other two are murderers.

Seven months ago, the warden, Wendy Hobbs, moved Crawford into the honor cottage, a hallway reserved for the best-behaved prisoners, and put her in a course for inmates about to be sent home. The program teaches how to manage life outside -- how to find housing, pay bills, get a job.

But unlike others in that program, Crawford, 48, has no imminent release date. Despite the fact that the judge in her case says he never intended that she be ineligible for parole, despite letters of support from the former chief of the parole board and from Democratic and Republican legislators, despite earning a college degree and spending years preparing other inmates for their release, despite commendations for her behavior -- a while back, she found a key to a prison vehicle and turned it in to authorities -- Crawford's only hope now is for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to commute her sentence.

No one was hurt in the crimes for which Crawford was convicted, bank holdups that netted about $10,000. The robber threatened tellers with a brown sock that she said contained a hand grenade. No weapon was ever found.

For her first 11 years in prison, Crawford was kept in waist chains and handcuffs. Her son Maurice -- born five months after Crawford's arrest and raised by his grandmother, aunts and uncles -- spent only the first seven days of his life with his mother. Ollin kept one of Maurice's diapers for eight years before authorities took it from her.

"There's three ways to leave prison," Crawford told me during a visit the week before Christmas. "Bitter, better or dead. I spent a lot of years being bitter. Last year, I was ready to completely give up and end it all. What keeps me going here is seeing my grandchildren run through the door screaming my name." She has eight grandchildren.

In 2002, as lieutenant governor, Kaine wrote Gov. Mark R. Warner to say he had looked into "the specifics of this case and I believe it merits special attention from your office." Warner took no action.

Showing mercy can be hazardous to a governor's political health, as Mike Huckabee is learning in Iowa, where his chief rival in the Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney, is blasting the former Arkansas governor as soft on crime because he exercised his clemency power.

Kaine's spokesman, Gordon Hickey, says only that "we don't comment on clemency cases."

Time passes slowly inside the white-brick walls of Goochland, a deceptively pretty campus of Colonial buildings half an hour west of Richmond. Clinging to a stack of well-worn family photos, Crawford recalls each painful step she took toward a hole whose depth she had never imagined. The plea bargain -- 15 years, 11 with good behavior -- that she turned down because her lawyer said she'd probably be acquitted. Or the late, surprise application of the state's then-new three-strikes law to her case, even though she was judged for all four robberies in one trial, as if they were part of the same, single spree of crimes.

Once in a while in three hours of conversation, Crawford allows herself to think about the world beyond. She asks about black-and-white TVs: "Are they phasing them out out there?" She's heard about "cars that have directions in them that tell you where to go. That would blow my mind."

Most of the time, Crawford doesn't permit herself the luxury of such images. In the cell she shares with another inmate -- "seven tiles by eleven tiles," she says when I ask its size -- she keeps a Bible she consults so often that its leather cover feels as soft as the pages inside. Next to the book, she keeps a slip on which she has written the words she says God gave to sustain her:

"We all have different gifts according to the grace given us," she wrote. She prays that all people be permitted to exercise their gifts "in proportion to their faith. If it is contributing to the needs of others, let them give generously. If it is mercy, let us show mercy and do it cheerfully."

Crawford dreams of holding her three children, all adults now. "I was Maurice's mother. I was not his parent," she says of her youngest.

Shortly after he graduated from college, Maurice came to see his mother on his own for the first time. Of all the hundreds of family visits she cherishes, that's the moment that brings her to tears. "He came on his own," she says as if marveling over a miracle.

After 23 years, Crawford speaks with a startling lack of anger. She has enough hope that she's lost 24 pounds this year, part of a diet and exercise competition she's having with her brother and sister. She has one sad eye and one sparkling one.

On the door of her cell, shiny silver Christmas decorations feature words cut from magazine headlines: "Building a Dream." "Fresh Start." "We are brimming with holiday cheer."

The governor of Virginia is struggling to find money to do a few big things that could help many people. There's one small thing Kaine could do without spending a dollar, something that helps not just one person, but every one of us. He could set Ollin Crawford free to show that the state is not married to a mistake, that justice is served only when it is a meaningful blend of responsibility and mercy.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company