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September 22, 2007 - Tampa Tribune (FL)

At Long Last, Free Man Can Look Up

By Daniel Ruth

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Sitting in the prison van taking him from the Tomoka Correctional Institution to his home, his wife, his salvation in Hudson, Richard Paey began to experience something odd , something he hadn't noticed about himself the past four years of his life.

"In prison, no one ever looks up," Paey said. "Inmates rarely look up at the sun."

Now, sitting in the van, Richard Paey found himself gazing out the window, and slowly he began to raise his eyes as the landscape passed by.

"I looked out the window and saw -- things," Paey said softly. "The sun seemed brighter. The air seemed fresher. I had to look up." And life, at long last, seemed more just.

Only hours earlier, the 48-year-old Paey was more commonly known as Florida Department of Corrections offender R29228, a convicted drug trafficker not scheduled to be free until Jan. 22, 2028.

About four years ago, in an egregious exercise of prosecutorial abuse that makes a Star Chamber seem like an Edwardian era exercise in gentility, Paey was convicted in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court of seven counts of possession and trafficking in a controlled substance by fraud -- namely oxycodone and hydrocodone -- leading to a 25-year prison sentence.

But this defendant was hardly the Al Capone of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Paey, then in leg braces and using crutches to get around, was a man in extreme, excruciating, unrelenting pain, the result of severe back injuries sustained in a car accident, a botched surgery and the onset of multiple sclerosis. Job was more happy-go-lucky.

Not a shred of evidence was produced proving Paey ever sold and/or shared his pain medications with others, which the defendant always maintained were legally obtained from his physician with a prescription.

Indeed, the eagle-eyed detectives and prosecutors never provided evidence that Paey forged prescriptions.

Still, despite a weaker case than the trial of Socrates, it was off to the hoosegow for Paey, who was now using a wheelchair and fitted with a morphine pump, which administered, at state expense, more drugs than the inmate had been convicted of illegally possessing.

Pain and Insanity

During his years in prison, Richard Paey become an international cause celebre not only for a better understanding of pain management in America, but also against certifiably insane sentencing guidelines, which would condemn a very sick, infirm man to a de facto life sentence.

While even the 2nd District Court of Appeal sympathized with Paey's clearly dubious sentence, it eventually fell to the state clemency board, made up of Gov. Charlie Crist, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agricultural Commissioner Charles Bronson, to trump the cruel intractability of the criminal justice system with some simple common decency.

John P. Flannery II, Paey's lawyer, in a powerfully written petition before the clemency board, summed up his client's predicament, noting, "Finally, in a civilized society, we do not punish individuals who are sick simply because they are sick and because they require medical treatment -- whether it is prescription drugs or anything else."

As well, Flannery said the mission before the board was to argue, "This was a case where the law got it wrong." He added, "We wanted to tell the board: You can trust this guy not to embarrass you."

Apparently, Flannery more than made his point.

A Good Day

Crist moved, not only to grant clemency, but a full pardon, which was unanimously approved. "They call it justice," the governor said. "That's what we're doing here today. We aim to right a wrong and exercise compassion, and to do it with grace."

Richard Paey began the day a felon. By sunset he was an innocent man.

Back at the prison, a bit of chaos ensued.

Pardons of incarcerated prisoners are so rare, no one knew exactly how to process Paey's release.

And in one final cruel joke, before he was informed he would be freed, Paey was rolled in his wheelchair to sit in front of an intake office, which processes prisoners into the system. How amusing.

"I was having a mild coronary," Paey said.

In the van, on the way home to his family, the corrections officers transporting Paey, never having seen a pardon before, passed the paperwork back and forth between them in amazement.

Finally, the long trip ended in Hudson with a reunion with his college-sweetheart wife and daughters and mother -- and a pepperoni pizza.

Resumption Of Freedom

By Friday morning, after his first night back in his own bed, Paey was busy on the phone trying to get his pardon papers returned from Tomoka. Amid all the excitement, harried prison officials had forgotten to make copies of all the paperwork -- including the pardon decree.

And now what?

"I'd like to disappear into anonymity," Paey said. "But I feel a responsibility to all the people who helped me keep this issue alive.

"They gave me a human side in the eyes of the public," Paey said, adding he would like to get involved in increasing awareness of pain management.

It's an acute issue, especially with more injured veterans returning from Iraq with significant pain-management problems.

"I get letters from veterans all the time," Paey said. "I'm gonna help as much as I can."

Paey was very kind in thanking this space for helping to tell his story.

But ultimately, Richard Paey is a free man today because truth eventually triumphed over prosecutorial bullies and because Charlie Crist and the Cabinet saw a miscarriage of justice and demanded compassion.

It was a good day for Richard Paey. It was a great day to look up -- into the Florida sun.

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