Now the Philadelphia native has a second chance. He's standing out again, this time academically, thanks to a Rutgers University program for ex-offenders.
Fortson served the minimum 251/2 months of a six-year sentence, studied exercise physiology, and last month was selected as a 2012 Truman Scholar, a national honor given to top students pursuing careers in government or public service.
He's one of 54 scholars chosen from 595 candidates at 292 colleges and universities.
Recipients of the award, named for President Harry S. Truman, receive a $30,000 scholarship that provides $3,000 toward senior-year expenses and $27,000 for two or three years of graduate study.
News of the award "took a minute to sink in," said Fortson, 27, of Piscataway, N.J. "I didn't understand the magnitude of winning."
"People have called me an inspiration," he said. "It's overwhelming . . . in a good way. I'm grateful I won and eager to see what I can do to make a difference."
Fortson is the eighth Truman scholar from Rutgers and the first since 2001. In his graduate studies, he plans to focus on the prison system where he served time, researching nutrition and obesity in the population, and finding ways to achieve healthier lifestyles.
He also hopes to expand to other New Jersey correctional institutions the state and federally funded program that assisted him - and eventually to see it spread across the country.
"Thank God I was able to get through prison without conflicts with other inmates that would get me more time," Fortson said. "Prison is hard to describe; it's not what people see on TV."
"I was not treated like a human," he said. "I was a number: 819161D. I was somebody walking on eggshells, trying to get out unscathed."
How Walter "Mike" Fortson ended up behind bars still baffles family and friends.
Life had been good to him. He lived in a middle-class neighborhood in the city's Melrose Park Gardens section. He was an honor student at Cardinal Dougherty High School, maintained a 3.5 grade-point average at Temple University, and worked for an elevator company that helped pay his tuition.
"I always expected him to succeed," said his mother, Katherine Fortson, 51, of Delran. "Mike is self-motivated. Whatever he does he does well. He's always won awards, always done well on tests."
Walter Fortson impressed his Philadelphia neighbors, too. "I've known him since he was 4 years old and thought, this kid is intelligent," said Cynthia Burrows, 50. "He thought beyond his years."
While at Temple, Fortson started a business buying sneakers from "bootleggers" in New York and selling them on eBay. He pulled in thousands of dollars and began living up to his income, buying two cars and taking on a home mortgage.
"The brand-name [sneaker] companies didn't like what I was doing, and my eBay business came crashing down in 2006," Fortson said. "I was desperate."
That's when an acquaintance introduced him to another moneymaking venture: illicit drug sales. "I looked at it like a business; I didn't see it as something wrong," he said. "If I didn't do it, someone else would.
"I learned the ropes of crack cocaine - what it is, where it comes from, how to take powdered cocaine and cook it," he said. "I never used it, though."
The business ended in May 2007 with the arrest in Atlantic City. "I didn't know what lay ahead of me," he said. In Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility in Annandale, "you're stripped of everything that makes you an individual, your privacy and self-respect."
Then Fortson learned about a Rutgers program that was helping ex-offenders go to college - and about history professor Donald Roden, who was interviewing potential candidates.
Roden "was more happy to see me than I was to see him," Fortson said. "There was an undeniable warmth about him. He got me excited. I looked at it as a blessing straight out of heaven."
Roden, who has been working with inmates since 2002, was "immediately impressed" with Fortson. "He showed great determination," he said. "Our hope and expectation is to get recidivism rates to go down with an education."
Fortson moved to a halfway house in Newark in 2009 and entered the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences in New Brunswick. He excelled, eventually winning the school's academic excellence award.
Last month, he was called to the campus' central administration office, where he found his mother, Roden, and other university officials gathered to congratulate him on his latest achievement - being named a Truman Scholar.
"He was happily stunned, very excited, and almost speechless," Roden said. "It was a tremendous honor."
His mother saw the honor as a sign of redemption. "It was a joyous time," Katherine Fortson said. "My son was brought up as a Christian, and I believe God can put anybody back in place; he's a restorer.
"I never thought [Walter] was a lost cause," she said. "I just never thought his life would turn around to this magnitude."
Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or firstname.lastname@example.org.