HUDSON - The relief on Richard Paey's face was obvious Thursday evening as he was helped from a government vehicle in the driveway of a home he had not seen in more than three years.
Amid family, neighbors and a small group of media, the 48-year-old spoke softly. "In the immortal words of Dorothy, 'there's no place like home.'
"Freedom is really everything, probably more than life itself," he said. "This is a sign that America is a great country. The system goofed up, but we're willing to address that."
His wife, Linda Paey, hugged him and stepped back, smiling wide.
"This morning we were scared to death," she said. "Tonight, you're home."
Hours earlier, the family was pleasantly astounded by news that Richard Paey's 25-year prison sentence for drug trafficking was being overturned and that he would be sent home that day. His case was heard in Tallahassee by the governor and state Cabinet sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency.
Traditionally, inmates must serve one-third of their time before becoming eligible for the clemency process, but the clemency board last month approved a waiver allowing his case to be heard early.
The Paey family arrived at the Capitol to be jolted by the news that the state parole commission had forwarded the case with an unfavorable recommendation.
Emotional Plea Helps Sway Board
An emotional appeal from the family helped convince Gov. Charlie Crist, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and Attorney General Bill McCollum that Paey had been wronged when he was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to a mandatory 25 years behind bars.
Paey was the victim of a 1985 traffic accident, and botched back surgery left him in chronic pain. He also suffers from multiple sclerosis. He was arrested by Pasco County deputies in 1997 after a three-month investigation of unusual prescription fulfillment.
In his 2004 trial, Paey's attorney argued that the painkillers were obtained legally and used solely by Paey, but a jury convicted him on seven counts. The volume of pills involved in the formal charges, 700 tablets of the painkiller Percocet, triggered the mandatory sentence for trafficking. Those charges stemmed from seven different incidents of filling prescriptions of 100 pills each between January and March 1997.
Advocate Champions Release
Since then, another lawyer, John Flannery of Leesburg, Va., a national advocate for chronic pain sufferers, has steered appeals through the courts and the clemency process. On Thursday, he told the panel that Paey is "a pain patient. Not a user. Not a dealer."
Despite surveillance that failed to establish Paey sold the drugs, authorities concluded at his original trial that Paey could not have consumed such a volume on his own. But Flannery said Thursday that was indeed the case. In fact, Flannery said, state doctors were treating Paey's chronic pain with a morphine pump that delivered in just two days more medication than Paey was sent to prison for obtaining.
Flannery's outline of the case was followed by tearful testimony of family members and a friend that silenced a Cabinet room packed with more than 100 people and their supporters petitioning for pardons, the restoration of their civil rights or authority to own a firearm.
A one-time neighbor, Alexis Muckle, now 20, described Richard Paey's role as her father figure. "I never knew what having a father was like," she told the Cabinet members. "I love him very much ... I probably wouldn't have graduated or cared about anything" without the Paey family, she said. "I just think the right thing to do would be ... to let him come home. We need him."
Through tears, daughter Elizabeth, 16, said her father's case "is like a nightmare to me.
"I just wish he would come home," she said. "It gets lonely. My mom's always gone at work, I just wish I had someone to talk to. I just wish this would all end."
Daughter Catherine, 17, said, "I don't want him to miss any more of us growing up."
Crist abruptly moved for a full pardon, which would not only free Paey from his sentence, but erase his felony conviction and restore his civil rights, something convicted felons often must petition for.
Bronson told the governor he understood why law enforcement and prosecutors pursued the case, "but this was a gigantic problem in the making from the very beginning."
'We Aim To Right A Wrong'
McCollum called Paey's case "the worst example you can imagine with respect to minimum mandatory sentences."
Approval of the full pardon was unanimous.
"They call it 'justice,'" Crist told the Paey family. "That's what we're doing here today. We aim to right a wrong, and exercise compassion, and do it with grace."
When Crist told the family Richard Paey would be released that day, the Cabinet room erupted in applause.
An assistant to State Attorney Bernie McCabe, whose office prosecuted Paey, told The Associated Press that McCabe was in meetings Thursday and would not comment on the pardon.
Inside a stucco home on a quiet street Thursday night, Helen Paey saw her son for the first time since he was sent to prison.
"Oh, my God, I can't believe it," she said, as she wiped tears from her cheeks. "I'm so thrilled to see you. I'd think of you and start crying. This was so ridiculous."
Paey held his mother's hand.
"I missed your food, mom," he said with a smile. "I was starving.
Look how much weight I lost."
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