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October 9, 2004 - The St. Petersburg Times (FL)

Prison, Pardon, Parenthood

Once She Was A Poster Child For What Some Call Unfair Drug-Sentencing Guidelines. Now Kemba Smith Is Telling Others: Learn From My Mistakes

By Sherri Day, Times Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

RICHMOND, Va. - Kemba Smith navigates her white Acura through a slow- moving line outside a private school surrounded by a lush canopy of trees. As she nears the entrance of St. Christopher's, a teacher calls her son's name into a bullhorn.

William Armani Smith, 9, emerges from a crowd of near-identically clad boys. The teacher tells Smith that Armani, as he is known, performed with his literary society earlier that morning.

"It was a big deal?" Smith asks. The teacher nods. Smith, disappointed, tugs at the lapel of her black business suit, indicating that she had to work.

She looks every bit the part of a typical suburban mom, struggling to balance her career with the challenges of single motherhood. More than that, she is a phoenix rising from the ashes of a life marred by bad moves.

Just 3 1/2 years ago, Smith was inmate No. 26370-083, serving a 24 1/2- year prison sentence for standing by her man, a crack-cocaine-dealing boyfriend. She carried his money and made sure he had an apartment and a car. Despite her bit role - no one claimed she sold drugs or even used them - - federal sentencing guidelines called for draconian punishment. There was no chance for parole.

But that was the old Kemba Smith. President Clinton pardoned her in December 2000, after she did 6 1/2 years. Now, Smith is piecing her life together and urging others to learn from her mistakes. A speaking tour brings her to Tampa today, guest of Delta Sigma Theta, a black public service sorority that lobbied for her release.

"I'm being obedient to why I feel God brought me out," says Smith, a 33- year-old with smooth, latte-colored skin and honey-hued hair. "Just like Moses. Moses didn't think he spoke well enough. I feel the same way. It's not the most empowering thing to be in front of people talking about poor choices that you've made or your prison experience."

Smith's story made national headlines in May 1996 when the now-defunct Emerge, which called itself "Black America's Newsmagazine," put her graduation photograph on its cover. Smith smiled sheepishly in a cap and gown, next to the headline: "Kemba's Nightmare. A Model Child Becomes Prisoner #26370-083."

All over America, black parents reeled. Smith became the example mothers used to show their daughters what could happen if they hooked up with the wrong guy.

High Expectations

Kemba Smith grew up with privileges of the middle class. Her accountant father, William, and teacher mother, Odessa, doted on her. She was a Brownie, a ballerina, a band member and a debutante. She also sang in the church choir and attended vacation Bible school.

Like many young people, Smith feared talking with her parents about life's thorny issues, including low self-esteem and boys. In her household, the rules were set in stone and some topics couldn't be discussed. She dared not disappoint her parents. She was in college when they found out she was interested in birth control. They sent her to counseling.

"I was their one and only child," Smith says, "and my parents had high expectations for me."

College is where everything fell apart.

Smith had attended high school in a mostly white Richmond suburb, where she stood out because of her race. At historically black Hampton University in Hampton, Va., she felt like a nobody, self-conscious in a sea of black faces. It was 1989. All around her, beautiful, urbane black women wore designer clothes, made the dean's list and exuded confidence. Smith doubted herself. Was she pretty enough? Popular enough? Smart enough?

She found friends at Hampton, but they partied with upperclassmen and smoked marijuana. They didn't like her boyfriend - a basketball player with no money, car or style - and suggested she trade up.

As a sophomore, she met Peter Michael Hall, a charmer from Jamaica. He was eight years her senior, with fancy cars, stylish clothes and the ability to admit Smith into a world of the popular and accepted. Plus, he showered her with attention. She couldn't help but fall in love.

She didn't know he was a drug dealer - or dangerous - until it was too late, she says.

They were together 3 1/2 years. For Hall's love, she endured his philandering, emotional abuse and physical beatings, which started the summer of her sophomore year after he saw her holding hands with another man.

After one particularly violent encounter, Smith, pregnant with Hall's child, had a miscarriage. She stayed, anyway. "It had to do with love and just being caught up," Smith says.

Love let her overlook what seemed to be a small-time drug arrest in Hampton. For love, she delivered money to a man in Brooklyn at Hall's behest. And when Hall suggested moving to Charlotte, N.C., Smith switched schools.

She soon learned he was more than a small-time dealer. He confided that he murdered his best friend, whom he thought would rat him out to police. More than ever, Smith feared for her safety.

Her parents, frustrated with her poor grades and erratic behavior, wanted her home. Bounty hunters called them to ask about Hall and, by association, Smith. And for a while, Smith did go home. She even talked to investigators. But her answers were lies, constructed to protect Hall.

As his drug business began to crumble, Smith joined him in a life on the run - to Houston, then Tempe, Ariz., and, finally, Seattle. By the time she left, investigators were days away from indicting the two, and others, on charges of running a $4-million cocaine ring between New York and Virginia. Smith says she did not know of the indictment.

In September 1994, exhausted and near-penniless in Seattle, Smith rode a train to Richmond, where she turned herself in to federal authorities. She was seven months pregnant. Instead of giving up Hall to gain immunity, Smith covered for him again. By the time she was ready to tell the truth, he was found, shot dead, in the couple's Seattle apartment. Police continue to investigate. Her ticket to freedom spent, Smith sat in a Virginia jail.

Hitting Bottom

William Armani Smith came into her life in December 1994, named for her father and the fashion designer.

She breast-fed the baby once and then handed him to her parents to raise. She was in jail, awaiting sentencing. In April 1995, a judge sent her to prison for nearly 25 years for money laundering, drug conspiracy and lying to investigators. She was 23, bound for the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., 400 miles from her new baby.

Smith quickly became the poster child for what some lawyers, activists and even judges say is the unfairness of mandatory sentencing guidelines. Enacted as part of the government's war on drugs, the laws require minimum sentences for drug offenses. Judges have no wiggle room, even if the accused, like Smith, is a first-time, nonviolent offender.

On a wave of publicity from the Emerge story, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund tried to help Smith overturn her conviction. They attacked the harsher penalties for those who traffic in crack rather than powder cocaine. Crack was more prevalent in the black community. All over the world, people wrote letters, started e-mail petitions and put up Web sites in an effort to free Smith.

Theodore M. Shaw, president and director-counsel of the Legal Defense Fund, says taking Smith's case struck a blow at a broad injustice.

"Given the facts of her case, it was a no-brainer," Shaw says. "It exemplifies a lot of what's wrong with criminal justice on a much broader scale."

Meanwhile, Smith's son grew up without her. She saw him infrequently because the trip from Richmond to Danbury was too far for her parents to make often.

After four years of failed appeals, the Legal Defense Fund petitioned President Bill Clinton on Smith's behalf.

On Dec. 22, 2000, she sat with her lawyer in the visiting room at the prison, waiting for an answer from the White House. After six hours, she sent her lawyer away and went back behind bars to make peace with what she thought was the inevitable.

Soon, a prison official came to her and delivered the good news.

She moved quickly to say goodbye to her friends.

Smith felt a little guilty, leaving them behind. She knew there were others like her, blindly caught up in the drug trade.

Who would work to free them?

A New Beginning

Once released,Smith flew to Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., where a group of family and friends cheered her return. Her parents drove her to Richmond and checked into Embassy Suites to avoid the media gathered at their house.

They brought Armani, then 6, with them.

Smith remembers dinner at the Waffle House, slipping into pajamas and eyeing the bed. She longed for a night of sweet sleep. But Armani had other plans. He wanted to talk until the sun came up.

"At that point, I was like "Oh, my God, is this what it's like?"' says Smith. "I didn't know if I could do it."

Safely ensconced in her parents' suburban Richmond home, Smith, then 29, began to build a normal life. She juggled parental responsibilities with college and speaking engagements.

Since her release, she has spoken at dozens of colleges, churches and high schools. Monday, she attended a Supreme Court hearing to show support for a case challenging mandatory minimum sentences.

To young people, including those she will meet today at Tampa's Middleton High School, she emphasizes the importance of making sound choices. And she tries to make them herself. She graduated from Virginia Union University with a degree in social work in 2002 and works as a legal assistant in a Richmond law firm.

"She's an asset to me," says her boss, lawyer Arnold R. Henderson. "A lot of the people that come through my door are in the same situation that she was in. Because of that, she relates to their feelings. There's a certain amount of understanding and a certain connection."

Henderson understands that he may soon lose Smith. She plans to take the LSAT in December and seek admission to Howard University's law school. Like all applicants to the bar, she'll have to demonstrate moral character; as a convicted felon, her hurdle will be higher.

During a visit to the Legal Defense Fund office in New York, she touched the desk of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who helped form the law office in the 1940s.

Once, she thought prison was her destiny. Now she envisions a career.

She recently finished writing her story. Her agent is seeking a publisher. Filmmaker John Singleton has been in contact, and so have Lifetime Television and Turner Broadcasting.

One Day at a Time

A year ago, Smith bought a handsome two-story brick house in a Richmond suburb. She has decorated the front porch with pumpkins; they greet her and Armani after this trip home from school.

Chores mount. Smith must make dinner, calm Gizmo, the family's Boston terrier, and tend to Armani's blistered toe.

They are the mundane moments of parenthood, made more precious by the time apart.

Smith takes her freedom in small sips. She is dating again. As were her parents, she is protective of her only child. She won't allow media photographs of him at school, where classmates might probe too deeply about her past.

But she encourages Armani to talk to her about everything - and he does. He chats about his blister, his student council meeting, a spelling test where he struggled to spell Amerigo Vespucci, and the state fair. The fair? Weary, she tries to ply him with movie tickets. She knows his grandparents took him to the fair the week before.

"But Moom-eee," he whines, working her into a smile. "You can see Shark Tale later, and the state fair leaves Sunday."

Too soon, her life will come down to more difficult choices. Law school will be a hurdle if she gets in, but she has cleared other hurdles. Should she bring Armani with her for her first year? Would he be better off with her parents?

When she looks at him, she doesn't see the mistakes that brought him to her.

"I see my heart," she says, wiping away a tear.

"I know he loves me so much. I'm grateful that in spite of everything that happened, nothing broke that."

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