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Kemba Smith's Hard Time

In Seattle, now newly pregnant, Kemba lived with Peter in a series of small apartments for four months. They had little money; sometimes they went without meals. The balance of power between them had changed, she says, and she found it easier to argue with him. She prevailed upon Peter to let her go home, if only for the sake of the baby.

"He finally told me that I could go home. . . . He wanted a good life for the baby," Kemba testified at her sentencing hearing. "He felt as if I was aggravating him a lot and he said that he didn't want to end up hurting me."

She took a train to Richmond, where she met with her parents and learned that there was a warrant out for her arrest. On Sept. 1 she turned herself in and was placed in jail without bond. As it turned out, it would be her last day in the outside world.

On Sept. 30, Kemba again was interrogated by federal agents, and again refused to give the information they sought, information that would have likely earned her a bargain on her sentence. The government wanted Peter. Where was he?

She lied. She said she'd been in D.C. for the last nine months.

By this time, the U.S. Marshals Service had placed Peter Hall on its 15 Most Wanted fugitives list, and was closing in on his location. But the Marshals Service would not be the first to find him.

The same day or the day after she talked to federal agents, Kemba says she had a dream: Peter was dying and released her from the deceit.

"He was in my arms and I was crying and he was telling me, 'It's okay, go ahead, it's okay.' "

She told her attorney, Robert Wagner, who says he "went right to the pay phone and called [the prosecutor] and said to him, 'She's ready to tell you where Peter is.' "

Wagner says the prosecutor responded, "It's too late. He's dead."

Peter had been shot once in the head by a still-unknown person in his Seattle apartment Oct. 1.

When Kemba heard the news, "I burst into tears." But there was relief, too, that the lying could stop, that her child--born William Armani Smith two months later--could begin his life in safety.

"I think God gave me Armani," Kemba says. Otherwise, "I don't know if Peter would have told me it was okay to go home. I could have been in the apartment with him when he was killed."

Acting on the advice of Wagner, Kemba pleaded guilty to three charges: conspiracy to crack and powder cocaine trafficking, money laundering and making false statements to federal agents. The amount she was charged with trafficking, 255 kilograms of crack cocaine, was 170 times the amount needed to trigger a 20-year sentence--even though she never actually sold any drugs.

Despite the relatively passive nature of Kemba's crimes, her guilty plea left her naked in a storm of angry jurisprudence. The devastating impact of crack cocaine on inner cities in the mid-1980s, combined with an increasing desire to legislate prison sentences rather than leaving them to capricious judges, resulted in a system dominated by prosecutors featuring stiff minimums. Under this system, only the government can seek a reduction in the minimum sentence.

When prosecutors are in charge, the importance of defendants' cooperating with investigators is magnified. Those who talk are rewarded, and those who remain silent are punished--sometimes to an extreme.

While 13 defendants were charged in the Hall brothers' drug ring, plenty more escaped prosecution because they assisted investigators. One who escaped was Peter's ex-roommate and girlfriend, the accomplice in Derrick Taylor's murder. She cooperated with authorities and was placed in the witness protection program.

In some ways, Kemba's refusal to cooperate was her biggest crime.

Kemba's attorneys, Wagner and William P. Robinson--who came on after Kemba pleaded guilty--still saw reason to hope. Wagner says the prosecutor had promised him early on that he would ask for a sentence reduction--an allegation that forms the backbone of appeals undertaken by Kemba's current lawyers at the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund.

But the prosecution never asked for any reductions--Kemba, after all, offered no aid in the government's hunt for a murderer--and the U.S. Attorney's Office says no promises for leniency were ever made.

Even without the prosecution's support, though, Kemba's attorneys hoped they could win a lesser sentence by arguing that Peter's long-term abuse amounted to coercion or duress.

On the April day she was sentenced, Kemba wore a black-and-white checked jacket and black pants and sat in between her attorneys. Five years, she was thinking. I can accept five years. That's how long she thought she'd get, based on what she'd understood from her attorneys and her own hope.

When she heard the judge's opinion, she felt herself go cold.

U.S. District Judge Richard Kellam rejected the coercion argument:

"How could her fear have completely controlled all of her conduct up until the time that she decided . . . that she was going to cooperate with the government?" Kellam asked.

Then she heard "294 months."

She didn't instantly translate that into years, but she knew it was a long time. Her legs felt weak. She heard her mother crying behind her.

Critics contend that mandatory minimums, and their ripple effect, are not punishing the major drug players they were intended for.

Instead, according to 1993 statistics from the Department of Justice, low-level players--first-time, nonviolent offenders whose criminal activity was not sophisticated--numbered over one-third of those in federal prison on drug charges and were serving an average of nearly seven years.

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