15 – Nick Robinson’s age when he was arrested
17 – Nick’s age when he was sent to an adult prison
33 – The number of years of his sentence
28 – How old Nick is now
2037 – The year he will be released
One Friday night in 2008, Coker “Nick” Robinson handed an unloaded BB gun to some friends and stood as lookout during a robbery. No one was hurt. Nick was apprehended and charged with several felonies related to the crime. His sentence, 33 years, was more than twice his young life.
Now 28, Nick’s had a lot of time to reflect on what led to “the most fatal of decisions.”
“Early life was cool,” he says now. He is one of five kids, and when they were little, “both parents were in our home and that was more than most families had in our community. My dad worked hard building his own small carpentry business and providing a stable home environment for our family. He was also responsible for destabilizing it. After one thrown drunken punch too many, my mother had enough and moved us out of my father’s orbit and away from the city.”
The transition was rough, but Nick focused on school and sports. “Needless to say, Richmond has always had an issue proportionately distributing funding for public education to its underserved communities, but in the resource-rich county, I excelled,” he says.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though; Nick began experimenting with drugs and spending more time in rough situations. When he was a teenager, his mother lost her job and they moved back to the city. “My mom got involved with this guy who was a convicted sex offender and by law we couldn’t be around him. My mother chose to send my younger sister and brother and me to live with my older sister, Nikki.”
His sister, now in charge of her siblings, had a baby of her own, and the large family managed as best they could in a cramped two-bedroom apartment. “After watching my sister struggle to make ends meet,” Nick says, “my focus shifted from attending school and getting good grades to running the streets and trying to help put a good meal on the table.
“One night at our apartment, friends of mine were thinking about doing a robbery. They asked me whether I was with it and I agreed.” Their target was a nearby house, where the group made off with some property. Soon after, all but two of them were caught.
Nick had been in trouble with the law before, but never charged with a felony, and he’d never gone to prison. Initially, the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney’s Office issued him two charges as a juvenile – for robbery and a gun charge. Accepting this deal would have given him an indeterminate amount of time behind bars in the juvenile system.
Nick rejected the deal, exercising his constitutional right to a trial, and in response, the prosecutor chose to try him as an adult and use a powerful and retributive tool – mandatory minimum sentences. This response is known as the “trial penalty” or “trial tax.”
For Nick, it was a very heavy penalty indeed. He was slapped with seven robbery charges (for each person in the house they’d robbed), eight charges of use of a firearm, and one burglary charge. The gun charges each carried a mandatory minimum of five years. The judge had no choice but to hand down the barbaric sentence of 33 years. Nick was just 16.
Prison was a horrific shock. But as he did in childhood, Nick found his way through academic study. He got his GED and trained to be a tutor. He’s been working that kind of job ever since, and he’s also obtained an apprenticeship in brick masonry and various certifications in construction safety. He’s taken courses at Washington and Lee University and is now a part-time student at Blue Ridge Community College. He’s fostered loving relationships with his family, especially his mother, despite all that has come to pass.
Mandatory sentencing laws, the trial penalty, and draconian sentences have impacted Black defendants especially. But when Nick was sentenced, there was no outraged response from the media or politicians; as a society, we’ve become numb to outsized sentences like Nick’s because they are all too common. But that is changing, as awareness of the kind of sentence inflation experienced by Nick and his family and its impact on the Black community pushes the needle on reform a little further.
There are many people who now believe that Nick’s sentence is outrageous, including hundreds of thousands who signed a petition calling on Gov. Ralph Northam to grant Nick clemency. These efforts also have the support of Virginia state Sen. Joe Morrissey. Even Kelli Burnett, the prosecutor at Nick’s trial, supports his clemency petition.
As for Nick, he stays positive. “I look forward to attending college and earning my degree in mass communications and public policy while also further developing a program I’ve worked on for some time called Across the Aisle.” He’s deeply interested in politics, and has dreams of running for office one day.
And on a smaller – but to Nick, equally important – scale, is something else. “Once released, I also look forward to getting my ID. That’s something small, but the only ID that I ever had was a prison-issued one.” Sent to prison so young and for so long, Nick never got the chance to apply for a driver’s license, or anything like it.
The system thought it made sense that a child be removed from society for decades – in part because of an unloaded BB gun. And because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the trial penalty, that’s exactly what happened. No longer a child, Nick is determined to prove that he deserves a second chance and that justice should prevail.
You can help us fight for reform to the kind of laws that put a child behind bars for 33 years. Join FAMM and let’s fix the system.
NAME: Coker “Nick” Robinson
SENTENCE: 33 years
OFFENSES: 7 counts, robbery; 1 count, burglary; 8 counts, use of a firearm (BB gun)
PRIORS: no felonies
YEAR SENTENCED: 2009
AGE AT SENTENCING: 16
PROJECTED RELEASE: 2037