Advertisement

Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

FREED MAN STILL IN LIMBO

The Pinellas man awaits the state attorney's decision on whether he'll be tried again on drug charges.

Mark O'Hara left jail without handcuffs Wednesday, two years after he went to prison and one week since an appeals court ordered him a new trial.

He was serving a 25-year sentence for having 58 Vicodin pills in his bread truck. Jurors weren't told that it is legal to possess the drug with a prescription, which he had.

The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office has not decided whether it will seek a retrial in the Dunedin man's drug trafficking case.

O'Hara, 45, said he made the 168-mile trip back from a Dixie County prison without knowing exactly why. His attorneys had alerted him of their successful appeal but cautioned that it wouldn't become final for 30 days.

Still, he figured something positive was afoot.

"They been treating me like a human," he said of authorities.

Events leading up to his release also seem to point in his favor.

Col. David Parrish, who runs the county's jails, said State Attorney Mark Ober called him Monday with an urgent request. He wanted O'Hara brought back to Hillsborough from the Cross City Correctional Institution as soon as possible.

Prison transfers usually take a week. O'Hara's took a day.

After a short court hearing, the judge let him out of jail pending the state's decision on whether to retry him.

That isn't typical treatment for an inmate, but neither was the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruling about his case.

The opinion faulted prosecutors' claims that Florida statutes do not allow a "prescription defense" in drug trafficking cases.

Using words like "absurd" and "ridiculous," three appellate judges said the state's position would make patients with valid prescriptions criminals as soon as they left the drugstore.

Tampa airport police arrested O'Hara in 2004 after they found the Vicodin in his illegally parked bread truck.

He refused plea agreements before trial, one for three years in prison. Instead, jurors heard from two doctors who said they had been treating O'Hara since the early 1990s for pain related to gout and auto accident injuries.

Prosecutors did not contend that O'Hara, who went to prison in the 1980s for cocaine trafficking, sold any of the 80 Vicodin pills he had been prescribed in the eight months before his arrest. Under the law, simply possessing the quantity of pills he had constitutes trafficking.

At 1:25 p.m. Wednesday, O'Hara walked out the front door at the Orient Road Jail.

He wore a sky blue paper shirt and pants outfit, provided by the jail to inmates who don't have street clothes. He called it a "clown suit." He said he threw away his personal belongings on his way out of prison.

He had only a rolled-up stack of legal papers. No money, no ride home.

Parrish walked up from the parking lot. The jail administrator recognized O'Hara instantly.

"I didn't know about this," Parrish said, pointing to the awkward paper outfit. "I'm sorry. You've had enough problems."

Getting home to Pinellas County was the next one. Parrish handed him a $20 bill, then went inside to call a cab.

"You can't beat that," O'Hara said, smiling.

His head felt cloudy, he said. He wasn't sure what to think of his new freedom.

Parrish walked back out of the jail. The cab would arrive in five minutes, he said. When O'Hara told him how far he had to go, Parrish handed him another $40 from his wallet.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement