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YOUNGSTOWN Cocaine test sends woman to prison



Published: Thu, February 21, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The sentence was reduced to make her eligible for shock probation sooner.

By BOB JACKSON

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Rita Ashford swears that in all her 39 years she's used cocaine only one time.

But she got caught and it's cost her a stint in prison.

Judge Maureen A. Cronin of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court said she hopes Ashford gets the message.

"You need to get a fresh start in life and get away from your old friends," the judge said to Ashford during a hearing Wednesday.

Ashford, of Sherwood Avenue, pleaded guilty in April 2000 to involuntary manslaughter, reduced from murder, and was originally sentenced to five years in prison.

What she did: To retaliate against an abusive boyfriend, Ashford poured lighter fluid on the man and set him on fire in February 2000. The fire spread throughout her house and killed Ashford's 7-year-old daughter, who was trapped in an upstairs bedroom. The boyfriend, Kenneth Harris, survived.

Judge Cronin suspended all but six months of the prison sentence and allowed the time to be spent in the county jail. After her release, Ashford was placed on probation with conditions including that she not use drugs or alcohol.

A random drug test in January by the Ohio Adult Parole Authority showed cocaine in Ashford's urine, which violated her probation.

Ashford said she went to a party in January at a friend's house in Struthers, where she started drinking and "things got out of control."

She ended up using cocaine that night, though she insisted it was the only time she'd ever done that.

"I shouldn't have been there, but unfortunately, I was," Ashford said. "It's my fault. I apologize."

Defense attorney Thomas Zena said Ashford had been tested some 20 times before that and passed each time.

Recommended: Kelly Johns, assistant prosecutor, recommended that the original sentence be imposed, but that the term be shortened to four years, which would make Ashford eligible for judicial release, formerly known as shock probation, after 30 days.

Under Ohio law, defendants sentenced to five years or more must serve at least five years before they can be considered for early release, Johns said.

Judge Cronin followed the prosecutor's recommendation and said she will consider a request for judicial release when it's filed by Zena.

Zena had hoped the judge would allow Ashford to remain on probation, but understood why she didn't.

"She got a major break with her original plea and sentence, so the slack line was tighter this time around," he said.

Ashford said going to prison will cause her to lose her apartment, her job and a chance at going to trade school, which she was supposed to start in April.

bjackson@vindy.com




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