TALLAHASSEE - Richard Paey wanted to be a lawyer and then a cop, but the searing pain in his legs robbed him of that. He settled for being a son, husband and father.
Then the state said he was a drug trafficker. After a decade he was convicted on the third try and sentenced to 25 years in prison. But the drugs were for Paey's own chronic pain, the result of a car crash, back surgery and multiple sclerosis.
Appeal after appeal fell through. He found sympathy, in the courts of law and public opinion, but not relief.
Now, after more than three years in prison, Paey can call himself something else:
A free man.
Paey, 48, was granted a full pardon Thursday by Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida Cabinet in Tallahassee.
"We aim to right a wrong," Crist said. "And to do it with grace."
Paey never dared dream of a full pardon. All he asked the clemency board to do was commute his sentence to time served.
Then the governor stunned Paey's wife, Linda, and their three teenage children:
"I state he should be released today," Crist said.
Applause broke out in the Cabinet meeting room. The Paey family and lawyer John Flannery II hugged. It was 9:40 a.m.
Nine hours later, Richard Paey came home to Hudson.
"In the immortal words of Dorothy," he said, pausing to kiss his wife, "there's no place like home."
The reasons why Paey, who was convicted in 2004, ended up in prison are still disputed.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Paey turned down several plea offers that would have spared him serving any time. Paey wanted the charges dropped, McCabe said, which he could not do.
Paey said he wanted to take a stand on behalf of pain patients but not if it meant going to prison and leaving his family behind. It was the state, Paey said, that scuttled any plea deals.
Paey and his side still contest every bit of the state's case.
Afterward even the jurors regretted their verdict.
Last year, Paey had his hopes pinned on an appeal to the 2nd District Court of Appeal. In December the appellate judges upheld his conviction and sentence but acknowledged his plight.
"Mr. Paey's argument about his sentences does not fall on deaf ears, but it falls on the wrong ears," Judge Douglas Wallace wrote.
Paey is used to setbacks. A 1985 car wreck, then botched surgeries, left him in constant pain and ended any hope of a normal life. Then, after his 1997 arrest, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He now uses a wheelchair.
The court told Paey to ask the governor for clemency.
Paey let a deadline to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court slip by. His side wanted to show the governor and Cabinet how much faith he had in them for his shot at freedom.
He needed three out of four votes, and one had to be cast by the governor. Otherwise he would have to wait more than four years to apply again.
The Florida Parole Commission report recommended the Cabinet deny Paey's petition. It was a controversial drug case, Flannery was told.
"Early on I had a little bit of confidence and then it was absolutely gone when we entered," Linda Paey said.
It didn't take long to figure out which way the governor was leaning.
When Flannery's allotted five minutes before the Cabinet were up, he asked for more time.
"Of course," the governor said. Then Crist let Linda Paey speak, all three of their teens, even a family friend. For 40 minutes they spoke.
The Legislature never foresaw a man like Paey, Flannery said, a man who needed massive amounts of drugs but would run afoul of laws designed to curb possessing those amounts.
"We didn't expect to have a patient who needs more drugs than we can comprehend in our daily lives," Flannery said.
His most powerful example of the disconnect between Florida law and Paey's condition was this: the 700 Percocet pills Paey was accused of trafficking, Flannery said, contained only minute amounts of the drug Oxycodone. The rest was Tylenol. Florida's own prison system gives him more morphine each day to treat his pain than the entire amount of Oxycodone he was convicted of trafficking in, he said.
Paey never passed on any of his drugs to anyone else. Nor did he take a penny for those drugs.
"He's not a drug trafficker," an emotional Linda Paey told the Cabinet. "He is just a patient who needed pain medication."
After the emotional presentation, the first comments from the dais came from the governor: "I want to move that we grant a full pardon." The Cabinet made it unanimous.
It was the start of a day of surprises for the Paey family.
"I grabbed John's hand," Linda Paey said. "We came into this so scared, trembling."
Then Crist ordered her husband released that day.
"I didn't know you could do that," Linda Paey said.
She was driving on Interstate 10, heading to Daytona Beach to get her husband out of prison when a call delivered the last shock of the day:
The state was bringing her husband to her.
Prison staffers waited a while to break the news to Paey, but he knew something was up. "They're comedians in prison," he joked. "They were determined to make me suffer to the end."
The prison staff scrounged up a polo shirt and jeans for him. Two staffers drove him home.
TV cameras were waiting.
He has gotten used to this. The 60 Minutes profile. The New York Times interview. Paey embraced his role in a fight much larger than himself: to protect patients and doctors from draconian drug laws.
"It's gone on for over a decade that I've been fighting," Paey said, "over 1,100 days in prison."
Paey hugged his kids-Catherine, 17, Elizabeth, 16, and Benjamin, 15 -- petted his dog Winnie and fulfilled his last wish upon leaving prison: eating pizza.
Then, finally, it was his turn to fulfill someone else's wish:
His 84-year-old mother, Helen, who wanted to see her son out of prison before she died. "I can't believe it," she said. "I'm shaking, I'm shaking all over."
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