A wheelchair-bound Richard Paey was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a Florida judge on April 16. Paey, who was convicted of forging prescriptions for pills to ease chronic, severe back pain dating from failed surgeries after an auto accident in 1985, was sentenced under Florida law as a drug dealer -- though even prosecutors conceded there is no evidence he did anything other than consume the medicine himself (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/332/paey.shtml).
Paey's sentencing came as Florida endures a bout of prescription pain pill abuse hysteria, marked by the continuing legal and media odyssey of an Oxycontin-gobbling Rush Limbaugh and a sensational series of ill-reported stories in the Orlando Sentinel (http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v04/n318/a09.html?56410). Taking full advantage of the media frenzy is the Florida drug control establishment, led by Citrus State "drug czar" James McDonough, head of the governor's Office of Drug Control. Since last fall, McDonough and Florida Republican legislators have been pressing a bill that would enact a prescription monitoring system, and that bill is now near passage.
Richard Paey is a desperately sick man who took desperate measures to ease his pain: Florida police and DEA agents who followed him for months described him wheeling himself into one pharmacy after another and leaving clutching his bags of pain pills. But that didn't matter to prosecutors who tried him as a drug trafficker three times before they could win a conviction that would send him to prison for years.
"It's unfortunate that anybody has to go to prison, but he's got no one to blame but Richard Paey," Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis told the St. Petersburg Times after sentencing. "Even if he possessed one pill illegally, it's a crime. All we wanted to do was get him help and get him treated to ensure that he's not doing anything criminal," he added.
Paey and prosecutors wrestled over possible plea bargains as the third trial neared, but Paey ultimately decided to reject a deal that would require him to plead guilty to a crime. He simply didn't believe he was anything other than a victim of a medical system hijacked by the imperatives of the war on drugs.
It was a gamble that almost paid off. One juror, Dwayne Hillis, told the Times he did not want to vote to convict Paey, but relented after he was assured by the jury foreman that Paey would receive probation. "It's my fault," said Hillis, a 42-year-old landscaper from Hudson. "Basically I should have stuck it out."
Hillis was misinformed by the foreman. Paey was convicted of "trafficking" in more than 28 grams -- less than one 100-pill prescription -- of Percocet, a medicine containing 1.5% oxycodone. Under Florida law, he faced a mandatory minimum 25-year prison sentence and $500,000 fine.
"They compromised," Paey said after the verdict, "and in the field of justice, compromises lead to horrible injustice."
"I said, "Guilty. Put it on the (verdict). I hope you all can live with yourselves,'" Hillis recalled. "I just hate myself for what I did."
At the hearing, sentencing Circuit Judge Daniel Diskey expressed dismay at having to impose the harsh sentence, but ultimately washed his hands of the matter. Responding to a comment from a Paey defense attorney that the legislature needed to change the law, Judge Diskey said, "You read my mind. In 22 years of practicing law... I have watched the trial court's discretion in sentencing eroding away." Legislative guidelines have "virtually eliminated judicial discretion," he added. But Judge Diskey ultimately played his appointed role. "It should come as no surprise that I am going to follow the law," he said just before imposing sentence.
"Look what happens when prosecutors know that the defendant was a patient in pain and had no intent to sell the medicines. This madness must be stopped," said Siobhan Reynolds, head of the Pain Relief Network (http://www.painreliefnetwork.org), a group supporting the right of pain patients and the physicians who prescribe for them to be treated with dignity and compassion. "Richard V. Paey has been a victim of advanced multiple sclerosis and a botched back surgery, and on April 16, Paey became another victim of overzealous prosecution of pain patients and mandatory minimums," said Reynolds, who attended the sentencing.
"Paey, in his wheelchair with a morphine pump sewn into his ruined back, will live out what for him is a death sentence in a Florida prison for possessing the medicine that he requires to survive," Reynolds noted. "He needs air conditioning in order to survive the summer, but Florida's prison system does not provide it. This is an absolute travesty."
Two weeks ago, Paey's wife Linda told Drug War Chronicle she expected him to serve less than a year before winning on appeal. Now, if he can only hold out that long.
You can keep up with the pain wars on a daily basis by tuning in to PRN's new blog, -- visit http://www.painreliefnetwork.org and click on "Pain War Chronicles" to check it out.