Kemba Smith never used, sold, or handled drugs. Nonetheless, in April of 1995, she was tried and convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, conspiracy to engage in money laundering and making false statements to a federal agent. She was sentenced to 24½ years in federal prison. Although Kemba was a college student who had never been in trouble with the law before, she fell victim to what she refers to as “draconian drug laws” which “disproportionately affect minorities and generally entangle first-time offenders who have no history of violence.” At just twenty-three years old, Kemba became a casualty of the “War on Drugs” without fully knowing how she got there.
Kemba met Peter Hall when she was 19 years old. The charismatic 28-year-old Hall was known as “the man” on her college campus in Virginia, despite the fact that he was not enrolled in school there. Because Kemba was initially thrilled to be courted by what she believed to be a polite, generous, and well-groomed young man like Peter, their relationship soon became her first priority. But what Kemba did not know at the start of her relationship with Peter was that while she attended classes, Peter and his brother ran a drug trafficking ring whose reach extended from New York to Virginia.
Months before she discovered he sold drugs, Peter began to savagely beat Kemba. Once these attacks began, Peter’s hold on Kemba tightened. Peter ultimately manipulated Kemba into believing he that had her best interests at heart, that he loved her, and, most importantly, that she could not leave him. When Peter was arrested on drug charges, Kemba stood by him. She believed Peter’s promises to change his ways. Unfortunately, Peter did not change. Instead, he murdered a friend he believed was cooperating with the police against him and told Kemba that he suspected her father may be assisting authorities as well. Kemba rapidly became afraid for her life and that of her family.
Eventually, with federal authorities closing in on him, Peter went on the run. At this time, Peter permitted Kemba to return to her parents home. While there, Kemba got a job, re-enrolled in school, and tried to regain control of her life. Not long after she returned home, however, Peter convinced Kemba to join him again. Terrified of what Peter would do if she disobeyed him, Kemba followed him around the country for more than six months. Peter sent Kemba back home to Virginia once again after the two learned that she was pregnant with Peter’s child. Upon arriving home, Kemba learned that there was a warrant out for her arrest. A seven months pregnant Kemba Smith immediately turned herself into the police.
On the advice of her attorney, Kemba pled guilty to charges related to Peter’s drug trafficking, even though she never personally sold drugs. Kemba and her lawyer were confident her sentence would be lenient, as she was a first-time offender, and the prosecutor had promised to recommend a sentence reduction. When she heard the Judge sentence her to two hundred ninety-four months without the possibility of parole, Kemba was dumbstruck. By the time she was released, she would have been in prison more than half her life. Her son would be in his mid-twenties. It was impossible for Kemba to imagine spending the next 24 years in prison. Recalling the separation from her son Kemba says, “One of the hardest things I ever had to endure in my life was giving birth to my son and watching him grow up from behind a prison wall.”
LDF took up Kemba’s case pro-bono in 1996 and spent four years filing appeals and appearing in court on her behalf. In 2000, LDF sought a commutation or pardon from then-President William Jefferson Clinton and on December 22, just three days before Christmas, the President formally commuted Kemba’s sentence to time-served plus five years of supervised release. She was sent home to her family. In 2005, LDF petitioned for early termination of Kemba’s term of supervised release. That petition was granted the same year.
In all, Kemba served six and a half years in prison before her release. She recognizes that in comparison to so many of the people swept up in the “War on Drugs,” she is lucky. “Since my release, I have often felt like a sole survivor, continuing to be the voice for those still in the struggle-for the thousands of other women and men, many of them parents like me, caught in this web of excessive, inappropriate sentences that ruin lives without reducing crime,” she wrote in 2009.