TRENTON - Gov. Christie on Wednesday pardoned a 61-year-old Philadelphia man who was convicted more than 40 years ago on robbery charges in Atlantic City, but who has recovered from the drug addiction that once consumed him.
For the last 17 years, John F. Berry has worked as a case manager for Philadelphia Treatment Court, helping addicts in the criminal justice system, according to Christie.
"When I hear stories like John's, I think to myself, and I know in my heart, that there are so many people who can share in the same type of life-changing success, that same type of redemption, if only they had a little help along the way - not only from us but from God," Christie, joined by Berry outside his Statehouse office, told reporters.
Berry, who was pardoned by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012 for crimes he committed while he was an addict, said he began drinking when he was 11.
After his parents separated, Berry said, he befriended the wrong crowd and turned to drugs. By the time Berry was in high school, Christie said, Berry had used cocaine, heroin, and other drugs.
In 1972, after attending a music festival in Atlantic City, Berry, then 18, was arrested after stealing toy guns and brandishing them as he and others - under the influence of drugs and alcohol - shoplifted along the Boardwalk, Christie said. Berry was charged with robbery and possession of stolen property, and spent a year in a youth correctional facility. He was on parole for four years in Pennsylvania, according to Christie.
"I made a decision to put those drugs into my body," Berry said. "Once you put chemicals in your body, you are being influenced by those chemicals. And after a point, you are no longer in control."
In 1987, he said, he was "beaten down so bad by drugs, I cried out to God."
"I said, 'God, I don't want to die. Help me, God. Help me!' "
Berry went into detox, joined a 12-step program, and eventually earned a bachelor's degree in science from St. Joseph's University.
Berry, who is married with three children, says he has been sober for 28 years, one month, and 22 days.
"The governor reminded me: It's a miracle," Berry said. "I want to say that all the credit really belongs to God."
He added, "God is working through the governor, the State of New Jersey, his staff, to bless me with this pardon."
Both in New Jersey and on the presidential campaign trail, Christie, a Republican, has made combating drug addiction and the stigma associated with it a priority. He says the war on drugs has failed, and describes addiction as a disease that must be treated with compassion.
His staff caught one such speech on video at a town hall. It went viral, with eight million views.
In the past, Christie's pardons have mostly involved gun-related crimes.
In September, for example, Christie pardoned three people who live in other states but who violated New Jersey's gun laws while they were visiting.
In one high-profile case, Christie in April pardoned a Philadelphia woman who had faced up to five years in prison for bringing in a gun that was registered in Pennsylvania but not in New Jersey.
On Wednesday, Christie said he wanted to give Berry's story a "broader stage" because it would "help him to touch even more lives than he's touched already."
The governor, who did not take questions, said he also wanted to send a "broader message of the example [Berry] sets for our society."
"John's story is the reason why I believe what I do: that no life is disposable, no life is beyond redemption," Christie said.
Christie's office said Berry sought the pardon.
Berry said that during the week while he works, his siblings take care of their 87-year-old mother, who has dementia.
He gets to see her on the weekends. "I hold my mother's hand every Saturday," he said, voice rising with emotion, "because that's what she did for me."
Berry added, "It's not about me; it's about what I can do for somebody else today."
"I want the world to hear these three words," Berry said, "Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah."