For fallen gospel prodigy, a break in NYC court

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NEW YORK (AP) - He was a gospel music star who got a president’s attention as a child, sank into drug use and crime as an adult and was asking for another in a series of chances to show he could change his life.

Tyrone Ford got that opportunity Friday, when a judge shortened his parole by a potential three years because of changes in New York’s once famously harsh drug laws.

“I thank the court for reconsideration,” Ford said, sounding humble but upbeat. He now could get off parole in 2016, instead of 2019.

Minutes later, he was handcuffed and taken back to jail, where he was serving three months on a parole violation _ the latest stumble in a life that has veered between promise and problems.

“This was not an easy matter to determine. You had a lot of chances, and you know you haven’t taken advantage of all of them,” Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Roger Hayes told Ford. “I think you’ve made some mistakes in judgment. And I think you recognize them.”

Growing up in Washington, Ford was singing and playing the piano by age 4. His childhood was streaked with loss; his mother died when he was a young child, he was then separated from his younger sister, and he didn’t meet his father until years later, according to court papers. But Ford thrived: He had led three church choirs and appeared at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts by the time President Ronald Reagan recognized him with a National Youth Hero Award and a mention in the 1986 State of the Union address.

“We see the dream glow in the towering talent of a 12-year-old, Tyrone Ford,” Reagan said. Ford soon found himself the recipient of a piano from first lady Nancy Reagan and a promised college scholarship from the United Negro College Fund.

Then he began getting into trouble. He made a phony claim of being kidnapped after he disappeared from home for two weeks and his grandmother pleaded publicly for help finding him; a drug arrest landed him in a drug-treatment boarding school at 15, with the Reagans’ help, according to news accounts and prosecutors’ court papers.

By the time he was 19, Ford’s problems erupted in a strange episode in which he stole former Washington Mayor Marion Barry’s car by taking the keys from Barry’s office. Ford, who had attended Barry’s mayoral inauguration party several years earlier, blamed drugs as he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to at least 18 months in prison.

Ford, 38, estimates he’s been arrested 20 times _ most recently for marijuana possession just three weeks after he was paroled in January. He had been serving prison time on a 2009 conviction on charges of stealing credit cards from purses. He’s now serving 90 days in jail for violating his parole.

Frank about his rocky history, Ford asked to get his parole trimmed in spite of it.

“I can’t deny anything, as far as my record and my parole violations,” Ford told Hayes at a hearing earlier this month.

“All I can say is that I’m going to continue to try to do my best to do what’s right,” added Ford, who took college courses in fields ranging from sociology to kinesiology, got a paralegal’s certificate, completed a six-month drug treatment program and helped handle inmates’ grievances while in prison, records show.

Ford’s lawyer, Benjamin Heiss, argued that Ford was a prime example of the addicted, nonviolent offenders meant to benefit from the state’s 2009 move to ease prison and parole terms for some drug crimes. Ford’s parole stems from a 2002 small-scale cocaine sale conviction, a case the now-retired trial judge held up as an example of what he saw as the too-tough drug sentencing laws at the time and called “a tragedy” for a bright young man. Ford’s parole also encompasses the credit card theft case.

City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan’s office said Ford already had gotten, and squandered, more than his share of breaks.

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