From Grammys to Prison to Freedom

Backed by celebrity and legal heavyweights, hip-hop artist John Forte was one of two people whose prison sentences were commuted by President Bush Monday, giving advocates of drug sentencing reform something to celebrate.

While there are tens of thousands of men and women in federal prison because of controversial minimum sentencing laws, Forte, 33, has been a celebrity face for their plight.

Celebrities, including Grammy Award-winning singer Carly Simon and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, as well as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have been pushing for his early release, saying his 2001 sentence of 14 years in prison for a first-time cocaine offense was too harsh for the crime.

"I just couldn't be more pleased," Simon told Tuesday. "It's been a long time coming."

Simon has been Forte's most outspoken advocate and was the one who posted bail for him after he was arrested. She has known him for years after he befriended Ben Taylor, the singer's son with James Taylor, while the two were enrolled at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Simon sang a duet with Forte on his 2002 album "I, John," which was released when he was already in prison.

Hatch, who wrote the song "Are you Lonely Here With Me?" which Simon recorded, got onboard after the singer lobbied for his help.

"He's an extraordinary young man," Simon said. "And he was the first time I met him. He's even more so now."

Hatch was "key in getting the president to act" on Forte's commutation, Simon told the New York Post. Hatch's offices in Utah and Washington, D.C., did not return messages seeking comment.

Simmons said he got involved with Forte's cause after Simon approached him but said there are many more like him, many in worse circumstances.

"He was one example," he told, "a very high-profile example."

Career Interrupted

Forte, now serving time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Dix, N.J., will be released Dec. 22, having served 7 years.

He was a gifted musician having shared writing credits on the Fugees' 1996 breakthrough album "The Score," which won that year's Best Rap Album Grammy award. He went on to release a solo album, 1998's "PolySci."

But his career stalled in 2000 after he met a man in a club who offered to help set his music career back in motion if Forte could find women to smuggle drugs into the United States.

When two women carrying 30 pounds of liquid cocaine -- worth about $1.4 million -- were busted in a Houston airport, they named Forte as the man they were supposed to meet. One day later, on July 13, 2000, the women, under police surveillance, delivered the two suitcases containing the cocaine to Forte at the Newark airport in New Jersey.

Forte was arrested but told police during questioning that he believed money, not drugs, were in the suitcases, according to court documents obtained by He was later convicted of possession with intent to distribute 5 or more kilograms of cocaine.

Simon and others have argued that Forte did not receive a fair trial and that his sentence was too harsh for a first-time offender who had committed a nonviolent crime.

Fair Sentencing for the Guilty

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