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Kemba Smith's Hard Time

A good girl falls for a bad man. She's beaten and dragged into the drug business. When the law steps in, the first-time, nonviolent offender gets 24 years. Two questions: Why is that justice? And why

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2000; Page F01

It's hard to explain things when you don't entirely understand them yourself, but that's what mothers do. And so, when the boy visits Danbury every couple of months, Kemba Smith experiences the toughest part about being a mother--explaining.

When he was 3, Kemba told her son she was on "timeout." "I hung around with the wrong crowd in school," she said. "I made mistakes."

But right around his fifth birthday last December, he began to get mixed up. All this talk about guns and drugs. He came up with the theory that Mommy shot someone.

At which point she cried, and then lifted him onto her lap--because you can do that in a minimum security federal prison--and explained that she never hurt anyone, but her boyfriend did, and that's the reason why she's here.

Tougher to answer the adults. In letters they ask her why she didn't leave the man who beat her. They ask her why she committed crimes. Tougher to answer, except to say the reasons seem intertwined.

The worst letter was the one that said, "I deserved what I got."

Twenty-four and a half years. That's what Kemba Smith got. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy in a cocaine ring, although she never sold or used the drugs. She pleaded guilty after covering and lying and breaking the law for her boyfriend, who was leading the drug ring, who was also pummeling her off and on for three years.

She pleaded guilty in a nation where the drug war is so intense that a low-level participant in a drug operation stands to lose as much as its kingpin. The severity of her sentence, called into question even by a judge who has turned down her appeals, is largely the result of a potent combination of mandatory minimums and federal sentencing guidelines.

And now, Kemba Smith, 28, sits in federal prison in Connecticut with 19 years to go on a sentence of 24 1/2 years. Twenty-four and a half. That's about four years more than the average state sentence for murder or voluntary manslaughter. That's at least 15 more years than the average state sentences for sexual assault, aggravated assault and robbery. That's hard time.

Kemba's story is the sinking trajectory of a young woman born to advantage and remarkable vulnerability in the suburbs of Richmond, who made a few flightless hops toward adolescent rebellion during college, and then found herself a man. He was, as it turned out, very much the wrong man. The way Kemba tells it, it was just a short slide from love to fear, and from fear to helping, running.

Here is an old photograph. Kemba sits beside her boyfriend, Peter Hall, on her parents' couch on Christmas Day, 1991. Kemba seems relaxed, her head cocked to the side. Peter--who looks far younger than his 28 years--is not quite smiling. When this picture was taken, Kemba's parents didn't yet know the rap on this young man, who had once choked their daughter till the blood vessels bloomed in her cheeks.

Now, nine years later, the family left behind--Kemba's mother and father, Kemba's 5-year-old son--sit in that same spot in the living room, looking over old photos.

"Why did you bring him in the house if he was a drug dealer?" Armani asks, of the man in the picture, who is also his father.

And that, of course, is the question that haunts them.

"We didn't know he was a drug dealer," Armani's grandfather says. "We didn't know."

Ever since her case was featured in a 1996 issue of Emerge magazine, Kemba Smith has been a cause celebre whose supporters--perhaps simplistically--proclaim her a blameless victim. Her parents crisscross the country, telling her story to anyone who might listen. On the Web site devoted to Kemba's cause, and in the speeches that her father gives, young women are warned that Kemba's misfortune could befall them, too, if they make the mistake of falling in love with the wrong guy.

But the truth of why Kemba Niambi Smith fell in love with Peter Michael Hall--and stayed, while he pulled her down with him--is more complicated than bad luck in love.

In high school, say Kemba's parents, Gus and Odessa Smith, their only child seemed well adjusted and obedient. She grew up in a protective middle-class home in Glen Allen, Va., the child of an accountant and a teacher. She was an unspectacular student, but loved playing flute in the band and singing in the church choir. She attended vacation Bible school, obeyed her parents' 8 p.m. curfew.

"My parents kind of like told me what to do and I always like did it," Kemba says. "I would be upset about it. . . . [But] I wanted to be, you know, the perfect daughter that my mom wanted me to be."

Having grown up in a mainly white environment with white friends, Kemba felt uncool and uneasy around her black peers. She wanted to get over it, so she decided to attend an all-black college.

But when she started in 1989 at Hampton University, a historically black college in Hampton, Va., Kemba says she was plagued by insecurity. Released from the strict and affectionate sphere of her home, Kemba was overwhelmed by her freedom and the competition to be "fly." She became friends with girls who smoked pot and copped attitudes, and she smoked and copped and tried to fit in. In summer courses before freshman year, she made B's. But when the fall term started, she let her grades go, and her parents anxiously watched her grade point average drift below 2.0. Something concerned them even more: Odessa found out that Kemba wanted birth control. The Smiths, concerned about Kemba's sexual activity, had her go to a few sessions with a psychologist.

But the influences at school would be far greater than anything that happened in the therapist's office. On that well-off campus, in that partyers' circle, folks aspired to be what one of Kemba's friends calls "ghetto fabulous"--driving high-class cars, wearing flashy jewelry, touting style and dough.

At a get-together the winter of sophomore year, at the age of 19, she met Peter Hall. He was going by "Khalif" then, one of at least six aliases he used. He was Jamaican and not a student himself. He had an edge, and Kemba liked it.

"Everybody seemed to become energetic and alive when he came around," Kemba says. Guys stood up to offer him a seat. Girls hustled into the kitchen to get him a beer. Only later would Kemba wonder if that seeming respect was really fear.

That night, Kemba was flattered to realize that Peter noticed her. He teased her about how her last name, Smith, a "white slave-master's name," clashed with her African-inspired names, Kemba Niambi. He said her hair made her look like Minnie Mouse.

She was smitten.

They began casually dating, having sex. Kemba thought of them as "friends." She rode in Peter's flashy cars--a Jeep Cherokee, a Sterling--saw his townhousestacked with expensive electronic equipment and modern furniture, and heard the buzz that Peter dealt drugs. She didn't ask questions. The fact that many popular college women were friendly with him made him seem safe.

Yet, by the time Kemba met him, Peter had been using the campus of Hampton as a base of a growing drug trade for two years. He was nearly 28. He and his brother, Wainsworth Marcellus "Unique" Hall, had established a drug circuit between New York and Virginia that authorities say would ultimately move $4 million in crack and powder cocaine, and cause at least two murders. Peter Hall had a felony conviction dating back to 1984.

As Kemba and Peter became closer, she says, she got the feeling he was trying to mold her. He said her parents had sheltered her, and he acted as if he were her instructor in the ways of the world. Perhaps this is why the first time he beat her, she twisted brutal violence into a lesson.

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