Fallen Gospel Phenom To NY Judge: I Aim To Change

By Salon Staff

Published March 2, 2012 11:00PM (EST)

NEW YORK (AP) — At age 12, Tyrone Ford was a gospel music prodigy in a national spotlight: President Ronald Reagan pointed to him as an example of the American dream during the 1986 State of the Union address.

At 38, Ford woke up behind bars Friday and went to court, hoping to persuade a judge he was finally ready to reverse a long slide into drug-fueled crime.

Having spent much of his adult life imprisoned or on parole, Ford had been released again just in January, only to be rearrested within three weeks. It was the latest sad turn in a life that, from childhood, had mixed trouble and aspiration, accomplishment and blown opportunities.

"I can't deny anything, as far as my record and my parole violations," Ford told a judge Friday as he sought have his parole shortened because of changes to New York's once famously harsh drug laws.

"All I can say is that I'm going to continue to try to do my best to do what's right," he added.

His lawyer, Benjamin Heiss, said Ford was a paradigm of the nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders state legislators wanted to help when they eased prison and parole terms for some drug crimes in 2009. But to city Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan's office, Ford is a criminal who has squandered extraordinary good fortune.

"He was given everything that he could possibly want" as a youth, assistant prosecutor Catherine Christian told the court. "And he has chosen, for his entire life, to commit crimes."

Ford was officially a hero before he was a teenager. After losing his mother as a young child in Washington — he met his father years later, according to court papers — Ford largely taught himself piano and organ and became an accomplished singer. He had led three church choirs and appeared at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts by the time Reagan recognized him with a National Youth Hero Award.

"We see the dream glow in the towering talent of a 12-year-old, Tyrone Ford," Reagan said in his 1986 address.

Nancy Reagan gave the young Ford a piano. The United Negro College Fund lined up a scholarship for him. He attended then-Washington Mayor Marion Barry's inauguration party.

But by the time Ford was 13, problems were brewing. He began skipping choir practices and church. His worried grandmother pleaded on television for help finding him after he disappeared from home for two weeks, finally calling home to say that he'd been kidnapped but then admitting he'd lied, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

After he was arrested on drug charges, the Reagans helped arrange for him to go to a drug-treatment boarding school when he was 15, according to news accounts and prosecutors' court papers.

But at 19, Ford was back in trouble — and in the news — again after he stole Barry's car. Ford blamed drugs as he pleaded guilty; he was sentenced to 18 months or more in prison.

By now, Ford estimates he's been arrested about 20 times, according to paperwork attached to his recent court filings.

His bid to trim his parole stems from a 2002 Manhattan cocaine-sale conviction, a case the now-retired trial judge called "really a tragedy" for a bright young man. Ford was initially released on that case in December 2005 but periodically locked up again on parole violations and new arrests, including a 2009 conviction on charges of stealing credit cards out of purses.

He was paroled again Jan. 17 and arrested on a marijuana possession charge Feb. 3, authorities said. Officials found he'd therefore violated parole and ordered him jailed for 90 days, according to the state Division of Parole. Ford said Friday he'd had a hard time adjusting when initial plans to send him to a particular halfway house fell through.

"I was trying to prepare myself to do something different," said Ford, who took college courses, got a paralegal's certificate and helped handle inmates' grievances while in prison, earning praise from a prison education supervisor, records show. "But I got off to a bad start."

Ford is among hundreds of people who have sought to be resentenced since the 2009 overhaul of New York's so-called Rockefeller drug laws, nicknamed for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who signed them into law in the 1970s. At least 470 people have had their sentences altered so far, according to a state Division of Criminal Justice Services report from June.

While the rules and calculations are complex, Ford's lawyer said he believed Ford might be able to trim about three years off his parole, which now could extend to 2012.

Ford's history of parole violations doesn't outright disqualify him from seeking that relief. But Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Roger Hayes asked Friday, "What likelihood is there that he's not going to reoffend?"

Hayes didn't rule on the request, however. He said he expects to do so within weeks.


Follow Jennifer Peltz at http://twitter.com/jennpeltz

Salon Staff

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