The air in the courtroom feels cold, but his hands are clammy. The former drug dealer wonders if the fear inside him is escaping as condensation through the palms of his calloused hands. The warrant for his arrest was legitimate, but it’s been months since he lived that kind of life. The memories have already started to blur.

Robert Stanfield never believed in second chances; why should he hope for one now? Surely none of the others gathered in the courtroom know he isn’t the same person anymore and probably wouldn’t care even if they did. His only option is to cling tightly to Jesus and hope for the best.

But, as he looks around the room, he sees they aren’t there to condemn him. Instead, the room is filled with people ready to speak on his behalf, to fight for him.

On this day, he stands before the judge, and his heart beats rapidly. But he knows everything is going to be okay. Sometimes, God’s mercy acts quicker than we think.

The Life of the Party

Robert was raised in the South, where Christianity saturates every corner. Like many teenagers, he fell into his faith before anything of substance rooted deeply. By his senior year of high school, he was well on his way to being the life-of-the-party guy.

It started with social drinking—just on the weekends—at whatever event he was invited to, but it wasn’t long before experimenting with drugs became his new normal. His new bad habits grew, and they followed him to college. By that time, Robert had removed himself from the church altogether.

After high school, Robert went to Mississippi State University (MSU) to play golf—and party. But soon taking drugs turned into selling them. And the line between right and wrong disappeared like a vapor.

“I began selling drugs because I knew it’d be easy and because it helped support the types of drugs that I wanted to take,” Robert explained.

But MSU just wasn’t working out; he wasn’t making friends—he hated most of the students anyway. So he transferred to Auburn University, and the dealing only got worse. Robert says he sold more at Auburn than anywhere else.

Robert went to dozens of parties and supplied most of the drugs. Everything seemed to be going his way—until God changed the course of Robert’s life by sending him on an unexpected detour.

True, New Heart

A year later, still living his drug-dealing life, Robert drove home to visit friends and family for Christmas. An old church buddy invited him to come with his youth group on a ski trip. It was an all-inclusive trip; the only catch was Robert had to work in the kitchen. He decided to go.

Robert mostly kept to himself and avoided the nightly sermons. Falling back into faith definitely wasn’t on his agenda.

“It was our last night at the camp, and my friend told me that I should come to the last talk. I had grown up in the church my whole life, so I already knew ‘the talk,’” Robert said, snickering. “I had no idea that I was actually going to hear God’s voice this time.”

Listening to the sermon, Robert felt a familiar comfort he hadn’t felt in a long time. Something was calling to him and inviting him to find peace from the toxic lifestyle he had created for himself. Robert knew God was stirring him to reconsider the choices he had begun to make for himself.

Robert wanted to continue to use and sell drugs, but God made it clear those things simply were no longer an option. Robert’s desire to have a relationship with God became greater than his desire for the college party experience. He felt the weight of his sin and was finally ready to take responsibility for his actions and the pain he caused his friends and family.

Robert knew it wasn’t going to be an easy change, but that didn’t matter.

Sins of the Past

Several months passed, and the old identity he created in college began to disappear. His drug-dealing, party-man identity served no purpose in his new life. Robert had become unrecognizable from his old self.

That’s why his arrest in February of 2006 was so heartbreaking. Robert’s past had finally caught up with him.

A local police officer pulled him over to issue a citation for his tinted windows, but a license check revealed a warrant in Mississippi for his arrest. While God had certainly forgiven him, Robert still had to answer for his crimes.

“The charges seemed obvious to me but didn’t exactly add up,” Robert remembered. “I never sold drugs to anyone that I didn’t know personally in some way.” He later learned police had convinced a guy he knew at MSU to buy from Robert in exchange for having his own charges dismissed.

It was a confusing twist for someone who had just decided to completely change his life. “Nothing made sense to me,” Robert said. “I could only pretend to understand what God was using this for. What I did know was that I felt alone and was afraid of what came next.”

What Came Next

After spending the weekend in a holding cell, Robert was transferred to Mississippi, where he posted bail. But that didn’t ease things for him.

“When you post bail, you don’t exactly feel like a free man. In the days that followed, I realized a prison sentence was absolutely inevitable,” he said.

He heard the judge who had been assigned to his case was known to be blunt and arrogant. Things seemed dim for Robert, especially when he learned this judge lacked any sense of mercy and usually sent most first-time offenders to prison.

What chance did Robert stand against a judge with a hardened heart for guilty men? Since he did commit the very acts he was accused of, his only defense was to convince the judge his change of heart was genuine, that the man standing before the court was somebody entirely different.

News of Robert’s situation spread quickly through his church family. In a matter of weeks, the judge received hundreds of letters outlining Robert’s vivid transformation. Their display of support overwhelmed him.

“People often refer to the church as the body,” he said. “I was always told that when part of the body hurts, the remaining parts work extra hard to ensure that the one that’s hurting becomes well again.  I never really understood what that meant until I saw it firsthand.”

The body working extra hard—that’s exactly what happened here.

At first, Robert reached out to the members he knew best. However, in the weeks that followed, letters began showing up from people Robert had never once interacted with. It pained the entire church community to see one of its own struggling over a crime they believed he already paid for. They could sense Robert felt estranged and alone, and they were aware of his fear about what might come next if this judge found him guilty.

Robert’s trial quickly approached, and his lawyer suggested having six members of his church testify on his behalf. But on the day of the trial, Robert entered the small, southern courtroom and found it filled with over sixty members.

Not all sixty were allowed to testify, but their presence spoke louder than words ever could. As Robert looked around the hot and stuffy courtroom, he felt the protective hand of God resting on his shoulder. No matter how fearful his situation was, Robert knew everything was going to be fine.

And the Verdict Is

It would be a tidy ending to this story if the judge saw the loving support of Robert’s church that day and felt his heart grow three times larger, but that’s not what happened. In January of 2007, the judge found Robert Stanfield guilty and sentenced him to serve six years in prison.

On the bus ride to the penitentiary, a mixture of feelings swarmed Robert’s mind. “I was so overwhelmed on the ride to prison that I did what you’re not supposed to do. I wept,” he confessed. “After all of the support that I had received from my church, once again I felt scared and alone. Then another inmate approached me, put his hand on my shoulder and told me everything was going to be all right. In the lowest moment of my life, God was still comforting me and reminding me that He was going to make sure that I was okay.”

Robert experienced a lot of moments of clarity during his reduced sentence in prison—oh yes, this story does have a happy ending.

Even after Robert went to prison, his community kept writing the judge. Like that scene from “Harry Potter,” hundreds of letters made their way to the judge on a daily basis. Respectable and influential members of the community wrote, begging for Robert’s early parole. But he remained unmoved, eventually deciding to discharge himself from Robert’s case completely.

That act meant Robert would have to serve his entire sentence.

At this news, Robert’s community did not give up; they merely changed their strategy and began pleading Robert’s case to Mississippi’s governor and chief of staff. And the overwhelming support moved both men, inspiring them to rally behind the push for Robert’s freedom.

After careful consideration, both men saw the injustice of Robert’s sentence. The agreed no one charged with a first-time offense deserved a six-year prison sentence. In the following weeks, several parties partnered together to begin crafting a law that would help reduce Robert’s sentence.

The name of the law is forgettable, mainly because it consists of jargon and random digits. However, what it accomplished is anything but forgettable. It stated that a first-time offender serving time for a minor offense would now be eligible for parole after serving 25% of their sentence.

Robert did his part. During that first year in prison, he diligently avoided conflict and even started a Bible study with some other inmates. The parole board approved Robert’s release in June of 2008.

Welcome Home

The road to Robert’s freedom may not seem very long, but it was definitely a stressful journey. When he returned home, the entire congregation welcomed him back with open arms. It was such a sobering moment for Robert, and it reminded him that God’s love is unconditional—no matter the circumstances.

Shortly after his return home, Robert met Kayla, the love of his life and now wife of six years. Today they both live in Huntsville, Alabama where Robert works as a sales executive for a local company. Whenever they aren’t playing golf or tennis, he and his wife spend most of their time ministering to their church’s youth on the weekends.

In 2012, Robert was pardoned of all his crimes in Mississippi. You might say the community had something to do with that, too.

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