In 1992, Kemp was indicted on federal charges of an alleged conspiracy to traffic crack cocaine from the city of Norfolk, Va., to New York. After a six-day trial at the end of 1993, the jury found Kemp guilty. He was given four life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Goodwin lawyers quickly went back over Kemp’s case, sifting through evidence surrounding his arrest, reviewing court transcripts, researching the clemency process and soliciting letters of support from friends, family, and even the rap star Sean Combs, a childhood friend of Kemp’s. “Beyond the potential employment opportunities to help Kenneth get back on his feet, I can offer him my guidance and emotional support as a lifelong friend,” Combs wrote.
While they knew clemency was a longshot, the Goodwin team persisted and remained optimistic, particularly in light of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the judicial disparity between cocaine powder and crack. They would argue that Kemp’s four life sentences without possibility of parole amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
In May of 2016, Kemp received word that Obama had granted his request for clemency. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity,” President Obama wrote. “By doing so, you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.” Less than a month later, Kemp walked out of prison a free man. “I always had hope,” he said nearly a year after his release. “It’s what can happen when you have God and a good lawyer.”