When Anthony Graham saw a magazine story last year about Kemba Smith, headlined, "Kemba's Nightmare: A Model Child Becomes Prisoner in Drug Sentencing Frenzy," he thought the students in his high school English class might be interested.
"I said to myself that I might be able to get some writing assignments out of it," said Graham, who teaches 10th and 11th grades at Colonel White High School in Dayton, Ohio. "But the more the students read, the more shocked they became."
The story of Kemba Smith, published in Emerge magazine, was about an extremely sheltered, straight-A high school student from Richmond who went to college and fell in love with a drug dealer. Arrested and convicted of conspiracy to traffic in cocaine, Kemba -- a first-time offender who prosecutors admit never actually touched the stuff -- went to prison in 1995 under federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for 24 1/2 years without parole. She was 24 years old.
Today, a year after reading the story, about 50 students from Colonel White High are scheduled to arrive by bus in Washington for a national Free Kemba Rally, to be held at noon on the east side of the Capitol.
"We washed cars, mowed lawns, held dances and sponsored all-night basketball games to raise money for our trip," D'Wan Taylor, 16, an 11th-grader, said in a telephone interview before leaving Dayton yesterday. "What we would like is for Congress to change the federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and for President Clinton to grant Kemba a pardon."
A week and a half into the school year, the Colonel White High students were fired up (compared with D.C. students who won't even start school for nearly two weeks because of roof repairs). For those from Dayton, what started as a simple writing assignment was fast becoming the lesson of a lifetime.
"We began by reading the story together in class and then stopping to talk about it," Graham recalled. "It took a week to read all 17 pages because the discussions took up so much time. Kids woke up who I hadn't been able to reach -- the kid with his head down and the kid that didn't care. Suddenly, they were all participating."
After completing their first writing assignment, Graham recalled, students came up with an assignment for themselves: They each would write a letter to Kemba Smith, who was serving time at the Federal Corrections Institution for Women in Danbury, Conn.
"I told her that I had a girlfriend who might be headed in the same direction, maybe not as severe, but too trusting of the boy in her life," D'Wan said. "I told her to keep the faith and that I was praying for her. She wrote me back on my birthday and said she was trying to stay strong and that she was sorry to hear about my friend. She said that because of the people she hung around, she didn't think that her boyfriend was doing anything wrong and that she was confused back then."
The boyfriend, one Peter Michael Hall, 31, was described by Emerge as "a flamboyant young man from New York," a smooth talker with a Jamaican accent and easygoing manner whom Kemba fell for soon after meeting him at Hampton University. Although Hall would beat her with fists, belts and brushes, Kemba stayed with him. He reportedly even threatened to harm her family if she refused to do what he said.
According to a 16-count indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Norfolk in 1993, Hall was the leader of a violent drug ring that moved as much as $4 million in powder and crack cocaine between New York and Virginia from 1989 -- the year Kemba finished high school -- to 1993.
Wanted as a material witness in the case, Kemba was arrested and posted bond. But then, apparently out of fear, she fled with Hall, making matters worse. She finally turned herself in to federal authorities in 1994 and was held without bond. Hall was placed on the U.S. Marshals Service's 15 Most Wanted list and, later that same year, was found shot to death in an apartment in Seattle.
Kemba eventually pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring to distribute cocaine (she had ridden in a van carrying drugs from New York to North Carolina), money laundering (she had sent money to Hall while he was on the run) and lying to federal authorities (she had said she didn't know Hall's whereabouts).
"Some classmates were saying, like, She's stupid,' and If it had been me, I would have left the boyfriend,' " D'Wan recalled. "But most of us just felt like she had made a mistake and that the punishment clearly did not fit the crime."
Graham's students also began a letter-writing campaign to their congressman, Rep. Tony P. Hall (D-Ohio), and Attorney General Janet Reno. They were particularly upset by the mandatory sentencing laws, which Congress passed in the mid-1980s compelling judges to base punishment solely on the amount, or the alleged amount in conspiracy cases, of drugs involved in the offense.
Under the law, Kemba was held accountable for the entire 225 kilograms of crack cocaine allegedly distributed by Hall's drug ring -- even though she had not even met Hall when the conspiracy supposedly began in 1989.
"We want people to look at this law, know that it's there and see what can happen just from making one mistake," D'Wan said. "Kemba went to college and got mixed up with the wrong crowd, but that could happen to anybody, and it shouldn't ruin her life."