Life for 37-year-old Kemba Smith is a lot calmer than it used to be in the 1990s. During that time she was a student at Hampton University who hung out with the wrong crowd – more specifically, the wrong guy. The guy, Peter Hall would eventually become Smith’s abusive boyfriend who was also a major kingpin in a $4 million crack cocaine ring. Some of the things Hall coerced Smith to do would result in an end that no one foresaw. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Smith – a pretty young woman with a petite frame - was about to make a large impact on the country. Following is her story of adversity and redemption.
How it all began
On the outside looking in, Smith was a girl who seemingly had it all. The former Richmond, Va. debutante was the only child of Gus, an accountant and Odessa, a teacher. While her upper- middle-class lifestyle may have seemed admirable to her peers, few realized the insecurities that plagued Smith. She grew up in a predominately white environment with white friends so she never felt as if she fit in. In addition she struggled with her physical appearance.
“I felt my nose was too big, my legs were too skinny – I was just overly critical of self,” remembered Smith. “Those things can play a (negative) role in your mind.”
When Smith began summer classes at Hampton, a historically Black college, she thrived. However when the fall semester started, it was a completely different story. All her previous insecurities returned as she suffered from low self-esteem and struggled to fit in…until that is, she met Peter Hall. Hall was “the man” on campus even though he wasn’t enrolled at the university. Everyone admired and respected him, and once he and Smith started hanging out – she too felt the praise of her peers. “Back at the dorm there were girls who wanted to know what he was like, what we talked about. That made me feel as if I was noticed and it brought up my self-esteem because people were actually paying attention to me. I was with ‘the man.’”
While Smith enjoyed the recognition she received from being with Hall, it wasn’t long before their relationship became volatile. Hall repeatedly abused her.
“I listened to the ‘I’m sorrys’ and I stayed with him,” said Smith.
That decision would prove to be the worst mistake of her life.
The fight of her life
Hall’s drug-dealing became a commonality within their relationship and Smith was lured to participate in a variety of ways. One report states that she sometimes carried a gun in her purse, while another details her flying to New York with money strapped to her body.
It was at this time that the federal government intensified their search of Hall and listed him as one of the FBI’s 15 Most Wanted fugitives. Suspicious that his best friend Derrick Taylor was cooperating with authorities, Hall killed Taylor.
“From that point, things got more complicated for me,” said Smith. “It was more about doing whatever it was he told me to do and not causing conflict. It was also about protecting my family as well because he had been to my parents’ home.”
Smith stayed with Hall on the west coast for nearly 10 months. Within that time she became pregnant with their son.
Eventually Hall purchased a train ticket for Smith and she returned home. The search for Hall continued. However, shortly thereafter Hall was found dead – shot in the head by an unknown person. At seven months pregnant Smith turned herself in to authorities.
“At the time, the prosecutor said if I turned myself in, he’d allow me to come home, bond and have my son,” said Smith.
Believing this, she pled guilty to a conspiracy drug charge, money laundering and false statements.
“(The prosecutor) reneged on his promise,” recalls Smith.
Rather than receiving 24 months in jail, the young, pregnant Smith received 24 years under the mandatory sentencing law.
A mandatory sentence is a predetermined number of years in prison given to certain crimes that has been mandated by law. Minimum sentences are believed to reduce crime and ensure that sentencing for crimes is uniform. However, opponents argue that jailing nonviolent and minor offenders, most of whom are imprisoned for drug possession or drug-related crimes, is a waste of resources.
“When they said the 294 months, I was in shock,” said Smith. “I couldn’t calculate how much 294 months actually equated to.”
Her mother wept.
Smith kept the faith.
“I knew from that point forward, the only way I was going to make it from day-to-day - however long that would be – was for me not to lose faith that God was gonna change my situation.”
One of the first things Smith did once incarcerated was give birth to her child.
“It was definitely the most difficult situation that I’ve ever had to endure. Just being pregnant, having my first child, (hoping) there weren’t going to be any complications, worried if it was going to be excruciating pain. I did a lot of praying.”
Five minutes after Smith gave birth to her son, William Armani Smith; her legs were shackled to the bed. She was able to spend two days with Armani. Not wanting to miss a moment, she didn’t sleep either night. Because she was in county jail where no physical contact was permitted during visits, it would be six months before she was able hold her baby again.
While doing time, Smith and her parents were adamant about increasing awareness to her case. After numerous efforts, they never received any responses.
Eventually, an attorney friend informed Emerge magazine’s Editor-in-Chief George Curry about the Smiths’ plight.
“I thought it was a compelling story that so many could benefit from,” said Curry, president and CEO of George Curry Media. “It was the first time in the magazine’s history that we emptied the entire feature well so that we could devote all of the feature pages to one story.”
Curry says the magazine was flooded with mail. Many people said they knew others like Kemba Smith or that their own fate could have been the same.
“Even today people still mention the Kemba stories when they think of Emerge. This was a perfect example of a Black publication and Black lawyers using their respective talents for a common good,” said Curry.
After the Emerge article, people and organizations began to take notice – even those that initially ignored the Smiths. Although publicity regarding the case was increasing, Smith’s time behind bars remained challenging.
“One of the most oppressive and humiliating acts was having my family come see me, spending time with my family and having to see them leave,” Smith said solemnly. “Watching them walk away and then going back to that room, being stripped searched, the squat and cough deal – it was very depressing and humiliating.”
Still, Smith held herself accountable and did the time.
Smith’s legal woes took a toll on the family. She says her mother Odessa, who is generally a reserved woman, was initially hesitant about going public because of concern with what people would say. However, after careful consideration the trio decided it would be the best thing to do – not only to help Kemba’s case, but to also educate young people in an effort to prevent them from making the same mistakes.
Although the family was committed to publicly speaking about injustices within the criminal justice system, the effort wasn’t easy as they made personal sacrifices.
For instance, Gus and Odessa were forced to file bankruptcy twice, paid over $50,000 in telephone bills, were the sole providers for Armani and routinely made the trek to visit Kemba. In addition, after his boss requested that he stop speaking publicly about the case - citing it presented a poor image to the company, Gus sacrificed his career - retirement, 401(k) as well as all the other incentives.
Despite the hardships, Gus and Odessa don’t regret any of their previous efforts and a grateful Kemba is certain the ordeal made her parents even stronger.
“They typically wouldn’t have been involved with speaking on mandatory sentencing or being affiliated with certain organizations. It educated them about things that were going on and it kept them strong by having to endure such tragedy,” said Kemba.
The gift of a lifetime
After over six years in federal prison, the possibility of Smith being released was slim. There were several motions sent to court that were denied one after the other. Smith says her incarceration was affecting her mom’s health and she also noticed some emotional adversities with Armani.
“I knew (at that point) I was going to do my time a lot differently,” said Smith.
Resigned to keep the faith, while not becoming overly optimistic, Smith settled into her routine.
Shortly thereafter, Smith began getting help from various organizations including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. At the time Elaine Jones headed the organization and she took an interest in Smith’s case.
“Elaine read the Emerge story and decided to represent Kemba without cost,” recalled Curry. “Although there was no legal victory, Elaine did manage to get a presidential pardon.”
The pardon came from President Bill Clinton in December 2000 as one of his last acts in office. It was three days before Christmas.
“President Clinton’s commutation of Kemba’s sentence (answered) our prayers – nearly seven years of prayers, which (seemed) like an eternity,” said Gus and Odessa.
Rebuilding: The road to redemption
Once Smith was released there was an entirely different world waiting on her. For starters, technology had evolved beyond belief. Pagers were a thing of the past and nearly everyone had cell phones. President George W. Bush was about to begin his first term in office, many of her friends had gone their separate ways and Smith had to adjust to the role of mommy – outside of prison walls. As if that weren’t enough, she also had to learn how to trust men again.
“While incarcerated I had a lot of time to dream and imagine what I wanted – to be married and possibly have other kids. Prison is supposed to rehabilitate you, but I wasn’t criminally-minded. What I needed was counseling and an understanding of what a healthy relationship entailed.
“There were some uphill battles I had with men – none of them led to anything as drastic as what I went through in the past – but there was some heartache.”
Heartache, until August 2006 when she met Patrick Pradia – the man she’s now married to.
“Patrick has worked through some of my trust issues…he is a unique man.”
Pradia thinks she’s pretty unique too.
“I was really attracted to her on a mental level as well as physical,” Pradia affectionately said. “She’s a very strong person mentally. There’s not a lot that can break her – she always keeps a positive outlook on various situations.”
Pradia’s job recently moved him to Indianapolis and he and Smith are getting acclimated. Armani will join the duo once the school year ends.
When Smith was released, she finished her undergraduate degree in social work at Virginia Union as well as her first year of law school at Howard University. She often travels the country speaking to youth through her non-profit, the Kemba Smith Foundation and is actively involved with several criminal justice organizations working to addressing the issue of mandatory sentencing.
Indiana native, Carolyn Mosby-Williams, a friend of Smith’s says she’s not at all surprised with her ability to successfully reintegrate into society.
“Kemba had a plan. She didn’t allow her time in prison to derail what she wanted to become. It was a slight detour on her road to success but she clearly kept the faith and continued to work her plan,” said Mosby-Williams. “She knows that there is a lesson in each experience in life and she has embraced her experience, learned from it and is now using that experience to teach others.”
Smith is currently making the final edits to her book. In addition, her story will soon make its way to the big screen. Producer Will Packer (“Stomp the Yard”) has purchased the rights to Smith’s story and the project is to begin filming this fall.
For more information on Kemba Smith, her foundation, or speaking engagements, visit http://www.kembasmithfoundation.org">www.kembasmithfoundation.org.