Guests wearing beautiful attire greeted each other warmly as they gathered in the Kristel Room of the Greater Mt. Calvary Holy Church. Elegant crystal fixtures hung from the ceiling and the deep purple decor gave an atmosphere of royalty.
The scene at the Saturday morning prayer brunch belied the tremendous hardships that many of the attendants had overcome – including the keynote speaker, Kemba Smith.
“My priority had become this man. This man that I had put before my family, put before my God, put before loving me and my dreams and goals of what I wanted to become,” Smith said. “So my crime wasn’t that I was criminally-minded, my crime was that I chose the wrong relationship.”
It is a story that is nationally known. While attending college at Hampton University, Smith’s life turned upside down after she got into an abusive relationship with local drug dealer, Peter Hall. His illegal drug activity eventually left Smith in the middle of a federal investigation. In 1995, after Hall was killed by homicide, she was sentenced to over 24 years in prison for charges that included lying to federal authorities and carrying cash related to Hall’s drug trafficking.
Although federal prosecutors acknowledged that there was no evidence that Smith used or sold cocaine and she had no prior criminal record, she fell victim to harsh drug mandatory minimum sentencing laws. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the federal trafficking penalty for first-time offenders involving cocaine – five kilograms or more – is a minimum 10-year sentence. If the offense involved death or serious injury, the minimum sentence is raised to 20 years.
After Smith’s story was featured on the cover of Emerge magazine in 1996, she and her family were offered free legal aid by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to fight for her release. After several failed attempts, they petitioned former President Bill Clinton for clemency, and in December of 2000, Smith was granted freedom after serving six years.
She attributes part of this success to “the pressure from the Black community,” with the streams of letters and petitions supporting her case and the tireless advocacy of her parents, Gus and Odessa Smith.
But, the fight had been tumultuous. She recalled yearning for freedom while imprisoned and pregnant with Hall’s son.
“I remember when I was in federal prison, seven months pregnant, scared to death, wasn’t sure what the outcome of my situation was going to be… I asked God to please allow me to be a voice so that I can prevent other people from going down the same path,” Smith said. “It’s not about me, it’s about saving lives and doing God’s work.”
Shortly after her release, Smith finished her bachelor’s degree in social work from Virginia Union University and went on to establish the Kemba Smith Foundation. Through her foundation, she advocates for the reform of mandatory sentencing laws and influences young adults to avoid illegal drugs, abusive relationships and crime.
“There’s some grown women that don’t want to talk about the poor choices they made – being in a relationship with a drug dealer, him beating me, him killing his best friend. This stuff is not pretty stuff,” Smith said. “But God has blessed me and given me the courage to share.”
That sharing has taken her into places far beyond her imagination in prison. Smith traveled with an NAACP delegation to Switzerland to speak with the United Nations about voter suppression laws in the United States, which largely include convicted felons. She was able to cast her vote in the past two elections, and fights for that same right for other formerly incarcerated people.
On March 30, 2016, she met President Barack Obama in a White House meeting during which he greeted formerly incarcerated individuals who had received commutations. At that time, President Obama President Obama had commuted the sentences of 61 drug offenders. And more than one thousand non-violent drug offenders had their sentences reduced.
Smith currently has power and influence of her own. As a member of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission “I’m sitting in the room with good ‘ol boy, bow tie wearing judges of Virginia and prosecutors and I have a say at the table about certain crime sentences, costs [and] policies,” she said.
With President Donald Trump in office, Smith said things have been “very grim” transitioning into the new administration. In spite of that, she is hopeful.
“It’s our hope to get this administration to continue the commutations and see the importance in that. And one of the things that’s important is sharing the stories,” Smith said. “I, for one, understand the power of sharing a story … Never in a million years would I have thought that me making the decision to say, ‘yes I’ll do this article’ … [would have] launched a movement.”
As Smith closed her speech, she received a standing ovation. The Rev. Cheryl Mercer, an ordained elder of Greater Mt. Calvary Holy Church and organizer of the prayer brunch, sponsored by her Women of Worth Fellowship International Ministries, said she is glad attendees were able to enjoy brunch and fill their spirits at the same time. Mercer knows well the hardships of the incarcerated. Professionally, she is a community advocate of social justice who works through the faith based initiatives of the federal Court Services & Offender Supervision Agency known as CSOSA.
“So many of the women I work with have all kinds of situations in life – choosing the wrong people in their life, drugs, alcohol,” Mercer said. “[Smith] has such a victorious story that I knew that if I could get her here, so that those women could hear her and see what God has done, that it could transform [their] thinking.”
To learn more about Smith’s story, she has written a memoir, Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story, available on her website, www.kembasmith.com.
By Alanté Millow