First she was a convict. 

The Normal Life of Kemba Smith

One day, when the craziness dies down, she'll have her own house, a solid 9-to-5, a fine husband, quiet evenings curled up with her son. A normal life.

That's the hope.

Five months out of prison, it's hard to have anything other than hope.

Especially when you've spent more than six years behind bars.

Especially when you're 29.

Especially when you're Kemba Smith.

This is the Kemba Smith who got clemency from President Clinton three days before this past Christmas. The Mechanicsville resident and Hampton University sophomore who fell in love with the wrong man, carried some of his drug money and got 24ø years. The Kemba Smith who became a cause célèbre in federal lockdown.

The one who is now soccer mom ... honor roll student ... in demand.

Calls come daily for her to appear here, open some youth forum there. Richmond, Newport News, New Orleans. She's booked around the country into November.

She's trying to find that elusive sense of order.

Her struggle for independence began even before she was inmate No. 26370083.

Little by little, Kemba Smith is finally taking control.

This spring morning, she's running late.

A family the Smiths befriended during trips to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., has just left. Kemba sent them off with hugs and gratitude, for helping during those dark days.

A dry-erase board in Kemba's closet reminds her of the week's happenings.


Two classes, human behavior and social work.

The attorney's office where she works part time, filing, checking messages, maybe a half-hour there.

Errands, at least three, perhaps five, in between.

D.C., tonight.

She almost forgot one. Armani's show and tell.

"Armani, can't you find something else? Do we have to take this?" she asks, staring at his little hands cradling a bowl and its no-name, turquoise Siamese fish.

"Uh," the 6-year-old pauses. "Yes."

Kemba's biggest challenge since being out is being Mom. Armani was born Dec. 12, 1994, three months after she was arrested, almost a year after being on the run with Armani's father, Peter Michael Hall.

She's assuming the role that her mother, Odessa, filled during her absence.

Armani, all dimples and big brown eyes, still calls her father, Gus, Dad.

Kemba is never sure when to push, when to give. She's been firm on Pokémon, one of those fads that crept in while she was away. He can only play it on weekends.

Mother Odessa nudges on the fish: "It's OK."

"OK," Kemba relents. "Just let me carry it."

Her bag, his bag and the fish pile into her Ford Explorer.

Driving was one of the first adjustments. Remembering when to merge, managing the speed.

It's often the little things, milling at stores in suburban Richmond where she grew up, that require drills of "I can do this, I can do this, I can do this." There's always a fear, a sense of unease about the day-to-day.

In prison, she'd hear about those who'd just gotten out and were so afraid they wanted back in. She didn't believe them until Dec. 22, at 5:29 p.m.

During her first public appearances, she seemed fragile, with skittish doe eyes and thick, brown hair enveloping her face.

The days have created a stronger Kemba, in more ways than one.

During one of Armani's bimonthly visits to Danbury, he mentioned Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears — singers popular in his predominantly white neighborhood. No black artists. Now he listens to pint-sized rapper Lil' Bow Wow. Kemba bought him the CD.

"You can't keep him sheltered from rap music," she says. "Once he gets around his friends, he'll be excited about it and will only want it more."

That's a lesson from her own childhood, full and loving, but restrained.

Her parents — an accountant father, teacher mother—gave her an African-American name meaning honest; her middle name, Niambi, means faithful. They worked hard to make sure their only child's world was always gracious and intact.

She was a Girl Scout and a debutante, took ballet and piano, vacationed in Hawaii.

There was no staying out after dark during the summer, no rap concerts. No hanging out in the city, no discussions of prostitution, drugs, anything unkind at the dinner table.

Hampton University in 1989 offered so much to a naive Kemba. Late-night parties, rich kids smoking pot, a life of fly cars and clothes.

She met him as a sophomore, winter 1990. Hall was Jamaican, eight years her senior, with a tantalizing edginess. Guys stood up when he walked into a room; girls jockeyed for attention. Kemba was flattered when he eyed her at a party. She would hear whispers of drug dealing, and she touched the trappings: the cash, a Jeep, a laid-out townhouse. But he was accepted; Kemba deemed him safe.

Gus often speaks with regret now.

"In the old days," the Norfolk native says, "you kept the negative from your children. But maybe if we hadn't, she would've seen Peter Michael Hall for what he was."

The moment of no return came about five months after Kemba met Hall. She and some girlfriends attended a celebrity basketball game in Philadelphia. Hall joined her there. During the evening, a male acquaintance grabbed her hand as they crossed the street. Kemba looked up to see Hall watching.

Later in his hotel room, he told her that the guy was going to dupe her, rape her. She told him "that wasn't going to happen."

Hall snapped.

He threw her on the bed, smacked her face, then began to choke her. Her mind raced. "He's crazy," she thought. "When I get back home, I'm going to leave him."

But later he cried. Held her, told her he was only trying to teach her the ways of the world. By morning, she believed him.

For the next two years, Hall's East Coast drug ring grew, ultimately moving $4 million in crack and cocaine.

So did the abuse; so did the control.

When he told her to, she'd carry a gun in her purse, or strap money to her body and deliver it to New York.

In fall 1992, Hall told Kemba to go to Charlotte, where he had moved his drug operation. She did.

He told her not to use birth control. She didn't. Kemba got pregnant and miscarried.

When her parents called, anxious and worried, Kemba would say she was fine.

Bounty hunters contacted Kemba about Hall while she was visiting her parents. She did as he instructed. She lied.

One May night in 1993, Hall called Kemba and told her to meet him at a hotel parking lot. He then dropped her off, took the car and drove to Atlanta. She found out later that he'd just killed a partner, and she'd provided the getaway.

That summer, Kemba moved back home and met with federal agents. They promised immunity if she gave them Hall. But she couldn't. He'd killed at least once, and he could again. She told them she didn't know where he was.

Hall's grip was still tight. She talked to him frequently, wiring him money — hers and her parents'. Then in December, he told her to join him. She left for work one morning and didn't return home.

For nine months, Kemba and Hall ran, to Houston, to San Diego, to Seattle. By spring, she was pregnant, living in tiny apartments, sometimes without meals. By August, Kemba persuaded Hall to let her go home.

In Richmond, her parents told her there was a warrant for her arrest. She was indicted on several charges, including money laundering and drug conspiracy.

Kemba turned herself in on Sept. 1, 1994. Hall was still on the run.

One night a few weeks later, she had a dream. In it, she was holding a dying Hall, who told her, "It's OK. Go ahead. It's OK."

She called her attorney the next day. Quick, call the government, I'm ready to talk, she said. I'll tell them where he is.

It was too late.

The marshals found Hall Oct. 1. Someone else, they still don't know who, had gotten there first and fired a bullet into his head.

mith arrives at Richmond's courthouse annex building by 1 p.m. She's already gone to work, attended a class, run one errand. This is her second and most important.

Before the 5th of each month, she must drop off pay stubs and receipts to her probation officer, everything to show where she and her money go during the month.

It's tedious, but she wasn't pardoned.

"I understand they have to treat me like everybody else."

She can't vote. She can't communicate with friends made in Danbury; they have records.

Traveling outside eastern Virginia requires permission.

Kemba will apply for early release from probation, but she can't approach the court until December.

As Kemba leaves the courthouse, a guard quickly steps in her path.

"Are you going to speak at the church service Sunday?" he whispers.

"Yes," Kemba says. "I'll be there."

Minutes later, she stops at a lunch cart, orders a chili dog and a bag of barbecue potato chips.

"Are you Kemba?" two women ask.

"I can't believe it's you. I'm glad you're home!" one says, over the din of traffic.

"Oh, I prayed for you!" the other adds. "Clinton did something right!"

Kemba smiles.

This happens every day. She still isn't used to the attention, strangers walking up, pointing in her direction, wrapping her in a hug. Or being stopped at dinner, Armani often chiding, "Can't they see we're eating?!"

People aren't always nice, of course. Plenty of them think Kemba got what she deserved. She's tried to be honest with Armani about everything, so he's prepared for whoever might walk up and say something to him.

There are times she wishes that she could move to a different city and just be ... normal. She can't. She can't turn away people who prayed for her, supported her family while she was in prison.

And in trying to pull her world together, the last thing she needs is someone going around saying, "I met Kemba Smith, and she was so rude ..." So she smiles, thanks them, moves on.

Kemba wanted the attention in prison. When she pleaded guilty in October 1994 to drug and money laundering, and lying to federal agents — the government dropped the other charges — she expected jail time. Not 24ø years. Not more than many rapists and murderers get.

Her parents zigzagged the country drumming up support for her release and for changing mandatory federal penalties that limit judicial discretion and can treat first-time offenders like kingpins.

Kemba used the magazines and news programs to tell young girls the lessons she learned too late. She got letters from teens who told her about their abuse. She wrote them back, told them to get out, get help.

Kemba had a purpose. People wanted to listen. The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund took up her cause; so did members of Congress. Incarcerated, she was wielding control.

Now that she's out, she's a commodity. Organizations pay, sometimes $1,500 for a 30-minute speech. It allows her to help her parents, she says. They went bankrupt twice, lost jobs, logged $50,000 in phone bills and more in legal fees fighting for their daughter.

Still sometimes she speaks for free. Kemba sees getting onstage three or four times a week as a way to reach one child, one parent, someone else.

There's the sense that she has too much to make up for.

She enrolled in Virginia Union University a month after getting out. Once a business major envisioning a life in corporate America, she's now in social work.

She carries a 3.0 grade-point average, tells herself that it's not good enough.

If she could manage her time better, she could be on the dean's list.

Maybe next year, her final year.

Then she's thinking about law school. There she believes she can really make an impact. Then there's the book she needs to write; a literary agent said she should, before someone else does. And folks are talking about movies. But how can she handle law school, a child, the apartment she wants on her own, the fame? She doesn't know.

Not yet.

Kemba finishes classes around 3, about the time she remembers she has two tests the next day. She pulls in front of Linwood Holton Elementary around 3:35, on schedule. The family is supposed to hit the road by 4 for a 7 p.m. engagement.

It's a meeting of FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national group that supported Kemba.

Armani is bubbling. Show and tell went well.

"They asked for comments," he says.

Mom interrupts.

"Armani, we might have to do homework in the car."

"Where are we going today?"

"Washington, D.C."


"We're going to a dinner with other people who were locked up and President Clinton granted executive clemency."

"But whhhhhyyyyy???? I won't have fun. Not even without my Game Boy?"


"Well, maybe we can make an exception," Mom says.

At home, Odessa is still getting ready.

"Aren't you going to change into something different?" she asks Kemba.

Odessa, still nudging.

"Mom, I look fine," Kemba says. "Remember, there are so many people who will be there and are not as fortunate as I am. I don't want to get all dressed up. I look fine."

Kemba walks off to do last-minute things. There's a speech tonight, papers for the homework, the Game Boy ...

For Kemba Smith, at least for now, this is as normal as it gets.

To contact The Kemba Smith Youth Foundation call 730-1123.


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