The Associated Press
4:59 PM EDT, September 20, 2007
A disabled former attorney was released from prison today after Gov. Charlie Crist and the rest of the state clemency board pardoned his drug trafficking charges, ending a case that gained national attention as an example of outrageous mandatory minimum drug sentences.
Richard Paey, 48, had served nearly four years on a 25-year sentence after prosecutors convinced a jury that he had forged so many prescriptions and purchased so many pain pills he must have been selling them, despite no additional evidence supporting that claim.
"It's unbelievable. For 1,165 days I've been in prison, this is my first day out," Paey said. "And it looks different on this side -- everything looks different on this side."
Paey learned he'd be released today after being called up by a guard, and was more than surprised. He expected to die in jail, and credited Crist and national advocacy groups with helping free him.
"He's a brave man, and it takes a great leader to show a small person mercy," Paey said of Crist.
Prison officials said Paey was being driven from the Tomoka Correctional Institution at Daytona Beach to his Hudson home in Pasco County. His wife, Linda Paey, said, "We're all excited. It's hard to believe that he's going to be coming home."
Paey and his supporters have argued that he never distributed any drugs -- that he purchased and consumed huge amounts on his own for constant pain. Paey has been debilitated by a 1985 car accident suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.
"We aim to right a wrong and to exercise compassion," said Crist, who moved for the pardon after the board heard emotional testimony from Paey's wife, two daughters, a son and neighbor.
"He's not a drug trafficker," Linda Paey told the board. "He's just a patient who needed pain medication."
The board -- Crist, State Attorney Bill McCollum, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson -- voted unanimously to approve Paey's release, overriding the recommendation of the parole commission that his application be denied.
Paey's attorney, John Flannery of Leesburg, Va., said the case illustrates flaws in the law and how people who are dependent on strong pain medication can get tangled up in the government's war on drugs. Because of mandatory minimum sentences, the judge in Paey's case had no choice but the 25-year sentence after he was conviction.
Flannery said Paey has been given more intravenous morphine in the past two days -- 3.6 milligrams -- than he was charged for.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe, whose office prosecuted Paey, said he had no reaction to the news.
"We had offered him several different opportunities to mitigate the damages in this case," McCabe said. "The first one, as I recall, did not even involve incarceration, but he would accept nothing."
Paey has said he wouldn't accept a plea because he thought he would win and didn't want to be branded a drug dealer.
Paey's case gained broad media attention and was featured on national news segments after the New Mexico nonprofit Pain Relief Network took up his cause. Siobhan Reynolds, the organization's president and founder, said his clemency is proof the tide is changing.
"Patients all over the country have been pleading guilty to circumstances like Richard for years and years, and nobody knew about it," she said. "Nobody actually dared them like he did and was willing to brave the consequences, which he did."
Linda Paey said she knew her husband would want "any pizza" after walking free.
Paey said he just wanted to hug his wife and kids -- and pet their dog, Heidi.
"It's been four years," Paey said, his voice wavering with emotion. "I actually get afraid to go home. I felt that way when they first told me -- I began to reflect on being away for so long.
"I will speak out for what I thought was wrong ... in the issues that this situation raised, and it raised many," Paey said. "But there's going to be a pause. I need to get back with my family."
Associated Press writer Brent Kallestad contributed to this report from Tallahassee.