Special Report

Hard Case

Jailed by draconian drug laws, Richard Paey entered a "medical nightmare zone." Now he enters the twilight zone of media celebrity.

By 1.30.06

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"It felt," he said Sunday night on 60 Minutes, "like my legs were being dipped into a furnace." Richard Paey referred to the road accident that left him, post-surgery, with screws in his spine and a pain, vicious as it was permanent, that had swallowed up half of his body. The good news of plentiful painkillers was offset by the bad news: climbing tolerance meant climbing doses, and when Paey moved with his wife Linda and his three children to Florida, those doses became problems in and of themselves.

The story is a sad one: well-meaning father and (as they said on the news) "Ivy-league educated lawyer" Paey turned to his New Jersey doctor of seven years for the prescriptions he couldn't get in Florida, where fear of running afoul of rigid Rx-drug laws is nearly as rampant as abuse of the drugs themselves. His rate of consumption prompted surveillance, which lasted somewhere between two and three months. The outcome: a sting operation, followed by the longer and sharper sting of a 25-year sentence for which the judge, it's said, had no alternative.

Richard Paey's case can be argued as well out of court as in it -- or better. At the top of the list of questions are zingers like these: Why did he choose to stay in Florida? Why did his trusted doctor fink out on him by testifying against his own prior testimony (he claimed, per 60 Minutes, that "all of the prescriptions were forged")? And what sort of legal system is ours that allows a State to bring trial "convinced that Paey might have been reselling the drugs?" But a different class of questions can be asked, too. When justice is so pro forma as to impose outcomes no reasonable person would prefer, victims seeking to undo their status must seek to replace it with celebrity. Trial by peers is agglutinated, to the tune of tens of millions of peers. The court is the court of public opinion, and the proceedings are mediated. "We," the people, must judge Paey not behind the blindfold of justice but through the filter of militating or mitigating publicity.

So I went to Linda Paey, on Richard's request, to mediate the media.

LINDA PAEY IS AFRAID. Like Richard, her concern is the distortion -- of excessive distance and excessive closeness -- provided by the refracted version of actual life. " He told me last night," she wrote on the 24th of this month, "that he wants me to tell people before it airs" that his fear was a familiar one -- "simplifying the story to meet the show format." The details that matter most to Richard are, Linda explained, "how the state obtained his conviction" -- what they are convinced involved the perjury of his New Jersey doctor and a single-bottle standard in Florida for violating the trafficking statute.

There is no shortage of media outlets for Richard and Linda. The story has been compelling enough to attract a fair coverage pattern: The St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribute have been joined, over the past two years, by Reason magazine, Nightline, the New York Times (that is, John Tierney), and National Review Online. The Cato Institute did a Policy Report. The coverage has been promising enough -- Radley Balko's NRO piece is illustrative. "Governor Bush should free Richard Paey. And Florida lawmakers should pass reforms to ensure that drug-war fanaticism no longer prevents sick people from getting the medication they need." But the blessing of media coverage is its curse, too: the greater the snowball is, the less an ability to push it one way or another the person inside can muster.

This is particularly true when the person is wheelchair-bound and quite seemingly punished by Florida corrections for engaging Tierney and others. On the 19th Linda wrote that Richard's worsening infections -- causing sores "on all of his limbs" -- were threatening the morphine pump connected to his spine. Under such circumstances he was unavailable for comment. But Linda conveyed Richard's frustration with the coverage he received on Nightline. Richard, it must be noted, refused to plea bargain, which would have exempted him from jail time. His rationale -- on 60 Minutes -- was dual: it would have been impossible to get medicated as a plea-bargained felon; it would have been impossible to "regain that dignity I had lost." Regardless, Richard was "upset that [Nightline] made it seem like he had regrets for not taking the deal. Richard said he made clear that he did everything he could do to avoid jail and that he was most hurt by how our family has suffered from his imprisonment and wishes he was home with us."

NONE OF WHICH IS to say, of course, that negotiating the forced plays and concentrated stakes of prime-time celebrity leaves Richard and Linda bitter. Linda "felt Nightline did a lot for the issues Rich's case presented and in general it was a good show. We want the publicity to help stop the manner in which chronic pain patients are treated in this country," she insisted. For those with enduring interest, Linda pointed to an Austrian film documentary outfit, called Cronos, which is covering Richard in what she considers fine style. "Cronos has dedicated many hours and resources to obtaining a complete picture of what has happened to us. They are professional in their filming but most importantly they care about their responsibility to our story [...]. I trust them in telling any aspect of our story they so chose to tell."

Until then, we have a multiplying, refracting field of Richard Paeys to contend with. The legal root of Richard's problem is an offshoot of Congress' mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, designed to keep judges from going wobbly on drug denizens. The possibility, offered up hopefully by Richard's sympathizers, of treating his situation as "a medical [not legal] issue" is plenty humane, but fair only to the extent that it exists within the context of a law-network we have built quite literally by the book. The way to fix bad sentencing guidelines is not to disregard the law simply because it offends. (This is where penumbras and emanations come from.)

Unfortunately the goal of helping chronic pain patients does not precisely overlap, or even parallel, that of helping Richard Paey. The old resort to sovereign mercy -- in this case, the good heart of Jeb Bush -- may be an excellent, even a necessary, way to bring Richard's punishment more in line with his crime. But his publicity, as publicity, heightens his exceptionalism. It is nearly impossible to escape exclusivity when crossing into celebrity. Put another way: the longer spent on the red carpet, the harder to be an advocate for your type.

THE GOOD NEWS for chronic pain patients is that Richard -- for all his amiability on national television -- is not in glamour mode, nor will he be any time soon. Certainly, a bit of pride shows through: the garments supplied by the state, in that regard, are threadbare. But the possibility that his awkward, intractable situation might translate into broader reform is real. The publicity surrounding Richard may yet be more a web than a net. His circumstance is maybe the least susceptible to conversion by publicity into a one-man show. And this is, indeed, as it should be -- because the right way to change the mechanism that imprisons Richard's type of offender in the way that it has is by the same channels that it was created. Commuting sentences is a quick fix, but always a partial one, and throwing out Law itself with the bathwater of a few unhappy laws is neither fix nor partial.

If the media can facilitate clarity here, instead of distortion, Richard Paey will find himself in that rarest of Twilight Zone episodes: that with a happy ending.

James G. Poulos is a writer and attorney living in Washington, D.C. His commentaries are found at Postmodern Conservative.

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About the Author

James Poulos is a doctoral student at Georgetown and the former Political Editor of Culture11. His writing has been published by The American Conservative, The National Interest, The New Atlantis, Partnership for a Secure America, and The Weekly Standard. In addition to AmSpecBlog, he has blogged at The American Scene, Doublethink, and Postmodern Conservative, which he founded. With degrees in political science and law from Duke and USC, he is currently at work on a dissertation about life after Napoleon.