Sue Kennon robbed four pharmacies in southern Virginia with a toy gun. No one was hurt. Ollin Crawford robbed four banks in Fairfax County with a fake grenade. No one was hurt.

Because Kennon's robberies took place over a four-week stretch, they were considered separate crimes, and she became the first white woman convicted under Virginia's three-time loser law: In 1987, she got 48 years in the clink, no parole possible.

Because Crawford's robberies took place over an eight-week stretch, they were considered separate crimes, and she became the first black woman convicted under Virginia's three-time loser law: In 1985, she got 70 years, no parole possible.

Kennon, a former flight attendant and mother of three, had no previous criminal record. Crawford, a former military police officer who was seven months pregnant at her trial, had only a misdemeanor on her record: She shoplifted a roll of film as a young woman in the District.

Kennon earned a college degree in prison. Crawford became a certified paralegal.

Kennon came from a wealthy, politically connected family that drummed up media coverage of her case and paid for lawyers who fought for years to have her sentence commuted. Two years ago, the state Parole Board met in extraordinary session, traveled to the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland County, interviewed Kennon and decided that the three-time loser law should not have been applied to her case because her crimes were all part of one scheme. The board ordered her released.

Crawford came from a working-class family. Two years ago, when Crawford's mother died, the warden at Fluvanna Women's Correctional Center permitted her to attend the funeral under the proviso that she wear hand and leg irons and the standard prison orange jumpsuit. Crawford's family arranged for all guests at the service to wear orange. In the funeral photos, Ollin does not stand out. She is now 44, has served 18 years and is scheduled for release in 2020.

Dick Black is one of the most hard-line, law-and-order delegates in the state House. The Loudoun County Republican voted for the abolition of parole and would do so again. He is a former prosecutor, a staunch defender of tough sentencing and a big death penalty advocate. He's the guy who sent miniature plastic fetuses to his fellow legislators during a debate over an abortion bill this year.

For the past eight years, Black has stayed in close touch with Crawford, visiting her at Fluvanna, taking her collect calls to his office every few weeks. Black believes that the only reasons Crawford remains in custody while Kennon is free are race and class.

"Reasonable people could look at these two cases and question why an affluent white woman was treated in one fashion and a poor black woman in a different way," Black says. "It makes a compelling case for the governor to say, 'Look, in the interest of fairness, I'm going to grant executive clemency.' "

The trial judge in Crawford's case, J. Howe Brown, has written a letter saying, "Certainly I did not intend myself that she be ineligible for parole." The judge said he never considered her crimes to be armed robberies "because no firearm, as such, was used."

Black still defends the three-time loser statute as good law, "but there's a small anomaly where people who use fake weapons are considered the same as any other armed robbery," he says.

Black has appealed to three Virginia governors for clemency for Crawford, so far to no avail. Last year, the Parole Board chairman, James Jenkins, told Black that he agreed that Crawford's case was pretty much identical to Kennon's. But then the new governor, Mark Warner, fired the entire board. Jenkins wrote to Black that despite a last-minute effort, "I regret to report that I was unable to obtain the votes required" to treat Crawford's case like Kennon's. (Warner is now considering the case.)

"What's frustrating is that those most likely to receive clemency are the very worst criminals, typically the butcher on death row," Black says. As he works to spring Crawford, Black is also lobbying against the release of a child murderer who is now eligible for parole after just 12 years in prison.

"Where is the equity?" Black asks. "I just want to give Ollin another chance at life."