- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

TROY, Va. — A tough-on-crime legislator who sent many people to prison as a military prosecutor is waging a campaign to win freedom for a convicted bank robber.

Delegate Dick Black of Sterling has been fighting for six years to secure parole or clemency for Ollin R. Crawford, the 1984 “grenade lady” of Fairfax County who some believe was unfairly sentenced when the state classified her as a “three-time loser” and denied her discretionary parole.

Mr. Black, a Republican, has allies in Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and James L. Jenkins, chairman of the state parole board under former Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III.

Mr. Kaine told Gov. Mark Warner, Democrat, in a May 16 letter that Crawford’s case “merits special attention from your office,” although the lieutenant governor is not taking a position on whether she should be freed.

Mr. Jenkins said: “I would very much like to see Ollin Crawford released. At $25,000 a year it is absolutely doing the commonwealth no good to continue to incarcerate her. The mistakes she made years ago she has well paid for.”

Mr. Black believes 18 years in prison is enough for a series of bank robberies in which no one was injured and no weapon was displayed. In every robbery, the slim, young woman strolled into the bank wearing sunglasses, a baggy gray sweater and a stylish gray beret. In her left hand she held a brown sock that bulged with a lemon-shaped object that she said was a hand grenade. It was never determined what was in the sock, Mr. Black said.

Mr. Black said Crawford’s case is strikingly similar to that of Sue Kennon, an upper middle-class housewife who committed four armed robberies with a broken or toy pistol before she was shot and wounded by a Suffolk pharmacist she tried to rob. The parole board freed Mrs. Kennon in December 2001 after she served 14 years of a 48-year-term.

The state Department of Corrections classified Mrs. Kennon, like Crawford, a “three-time loser” for stealing $180 in four holdups in 1987. That barred her from being paroled until the parole board, overturning the Corrections Department, ruled that her crimes should be considered a single criminal act instead of separate crimes.

Mrs. Kennon’s crimes were committed over eight days, Crawford’s over two months. Mrs. Kennon was sentenced to 48 years, Crawford to 70. Crawford’s take in the robberies was $10,000.

Mrs. Kennon is white and came from an affluent Chesapeake neighborhood. Crawford, 44, is a black woman from the District, who was working as a department store cashier when she was arrested in October 1984.

Neither Crawford nor Mr. Black believes Mrs. Kennon was favored for parole because she is white. “I don’t believe there was deliberate discrimination, but reasonable people might ask why a poor black woman hasn’t received the same consideration as an affluent white woman,” Mr. Black said. “We do know that two women with very similar cases received vastly different treatment.”

The judge who presided over Crawford’s trial and sentenced her said he had no objection to her being considered for discretionary parole.

“I did not intend myself that she be ineligible for parole,” Fairfax Circuit Judge J. Howe Brown wrote the state parole board in July 1992.

Mr. Black has asked Mr. Warner to grant clemency that would allow the parole board to consider Crawford for discretionary release. Her mandatory parole date is Feb. 7, 2021.

“I hope the governor says it is equitable to release Ollin the way Sue was released,” said Mr. Black, who represents Crawford free of charge.

Warner spokesman Kevin Hall said the governor’s office is looking into the Crawford case.

Mr. Black made the same request to former Republican Govs. George F. Allen and James S. Gilmore III, but his timing was bad. Mr. Allen was elected on a platform of abolishing parole. Mr. Gilmore’s parole board came under fire during his final month in office after it paroled a murderer and a man convicted of masterminding a murder-for-hire scheme. Mr. Warner fired the entire board, including Mr. Jenkins, who voted against the paroles.

Crawford has refused to admit guilt or express remorse for the robberies.

Asked during an interview at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women whether she wanted to acknowledge guilt, she hesitated, then deferred to Mr. Black sitting next to her.

“Ollin has always maintained her innocence and has never altered her position in the slightest,” Mr. Black said.

“Whether I did it or didn’t do it, 18 years for a first-time felon … is a bit excessive,” Crawford said. She was convicted on four counts of robbery and one count of attempted robbery.

Mr. Jenkins was no friend of criminals during his tenure as parole board chairman. The board had a parole-grant rate of 2 percent for violent offenders and 6 percent for nonviolent criminals.

But he said something needs to be done about the three-time-loser law, perhaps expanding to three or six months the period for which a series of crimes can be considered a “common scheme.”

In its final month, the Jenkins board overturned the Department of Corrections’ classification of Mrs. Kennon as a three-time loser and granted her parole because her crimes were committed over eight days. But the board denied parole to Crawford.

“Our concern with that case was that the board had not sat down to establish a new criteria” for someone like Crawford, whose crimes were committed over two months. “There was some concern over whether we were pushing into an area the legislature should address,” he said.

Like Mrs. Kennon, who earned a college degree in prison, Crawford has taken college courses and is one year away from earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

She also has become a certified paralegal while in prison.

Crawford has been a model prisoner who has trained other inmates for discharge back into society, Mr. Black said.

Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., whose office prosecuted Crawford, did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.

Mr. Black retired as an Army colonel in 1994 after heading the Army’s Criminal Law Division at the Pentagon. He prosecuted dozens of cases and supervised as many as 2,000 prosecutions during his military career.

“There is probably no more staunch supporter of harsh punishment for violent criminals,” he said. “But justice requires mercy in appropriate cases.”

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