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Pacyon's faith in his innocence key ; Exonerated man says mother, 81, never gave up on him

Moments after winning his ultimate freedom in a courtroom Monday, having his name cleared for a rape he never committed, Douglas Pacyon knew what he had to do.

He used his cell phone to dial his 81-year-old mother, Betty, in her Cheektowaga home.

"Mom, I have somebody that wants to tell you something," Pacyon said.

Then he handed the phone to his attorney, Thomas C. D'Agostino, the man who has stood by him for three years and helped prove his innocence.

D'Agostino explained that her son had been exonerated, that everyone now knows he didn't commit the rape that sent him to prison for six years and eight months in the 1980s.

Betty Pacyon was understandably thrilled. She thanked D'Agostino profusely, before uttering her two-word reaction to the news:

"At last."

"I walked away with the impression that Doug was right when he said she never gave up on him," D'Agostino said.

That faith in his innocence, from his family and closest friends, helped Pacyon get through almost seven years in prison and the last 19 years as a "free" man with a rape conviction still hanging over him.

Despite all the physical and psychological threats he felt in prison, Pacyon always had one thing going for him: the knowledge that he truly was innocent.

"Every day, I just thought maybe I'll get to court today and prove my innocence," Pacyon said in an hourlong interview Tuesday in D'Agostino's office. "If I had pled guilty or was guilty, it would have been different. But every day, I thought maybe I'll get the chance to prove I'm innocent."

Pacyon, now 54, served his time in Collins Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison with dormitory-style barracks, not cells.

But it was scary, especially being in the second row from the bottom in the inmate hierarchy. Only pedophiles rank below convicted rapists.

"It's overwhelming and terrifying, especially coming from a middle-class environment," Pacyon said. "You never knew if you were going to get beaten up. There were altercations and blanket parties, where they put a blanket over people and set it on fire. I also witnessed a person beaten to death with a mop wringer."

Everyone gets tested in prison, he said, noting that he was 6 feet tall, only about 165 pounds.

"I was tested as an inmate, to see if I was going to fight for my manhood," he said. "I won, and I did serve solitary confinement for a couple of weeks."

Originally charged with raping two women in Cheektowaga four days apart in May 1984, Pacyon was convicted of one rape but acquitted on the other.

Advised that he could get up to 25 years in prison if convicted of both rapes, Pacyon turned down a plea deal for a shorter sentence. As he remembered telling the judge, "Your honor, I'm innocent. I'm not going to take a plea deal for a day [in jail].

Pacyon was sentenced to 3 1/3 to 10 years in prison for his conviction on rape and weapons charges.

Monday, Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III joined D'Agostino in successfully seeking to overturn Pacyon's rape conviction, based on DNA testing that showed the same man raped the two women. That unknown man was not Pacyon.

Like a dark storm cloud, that conviction had hovered over his head for the last 26 years.

Pacyon said he learned how to adjust to daily prison life.

"As time goes by, it starts sinking in," he said. "You know you're not walking out the door."

One of his tricks for surviving prison was never to look at the fence surrounding the facility. The fence represented the reality that he was locked up. Looking at it would make his freedom seem more elusive.

"That gave me my own personal freedom," he said of not looking at the fence.

Pacyon twice had a chance to walk out the prison door early, before serving the required 6 2/3 years of his 10-year maximum.

But that door was blocked by the Catch-22 phenomenon for truly innocent prisoners.

All Pacyon had to do was admit to his crime, take a class for sex offenders and tell the Parole Board how he had learned his lesson and rehabilitated himself.

"That's where it takes a man to stand up for what you believe in," he said. "Believe me, I hated every minute of [prison]. But you have to do what you have to do. My parents always told me never to quit."

Released in April 1991, Pacyon has spent the last 19 years working at some food service jobs, but he's currently unemployed.

The last two decades, he has served a different kind of prison sentence. Pacyon calls it "society's sentence."

"Society sentenced you by not allowing you to live a normal life," he said, especially because his conviction was for rape.

"There is a stigma because of the hatred toward the crime itself," he said. "I have the same anger toward people who molest women. It's disgusting. It's repulsive."

If Pacyon feels any bitterness or anger about his own ordeal, in prison and then "society's prison," he won't share it. When pressed, he will say only that he's disappointed in some pieces of the criminal-justice system, but he won't single anyone out.

He has lived through enough sadness, enough disappointment. Rape is a violent crime, and Pacyon doesn't want to utter any angry or bitter words that would feed into that violence.

How about the two rape victims, who were attacked by someone who never will be brought to justice now?

"I would love to have justice for them, too," Pacyon said. "I understand and appreciate that this has been an ordeal for them. We're definitely all victims."

D'Agostino won't say much about his and Pacyon's plans to seek any monetary award for his wrongful imprisonment.

"We're looking into the possibility of making a claim against the state," D'Agostino said, refusing to elaborate.

Now that his name has been cleared, Pacyon, who worked as a certified literacy volunteer in prison, wants to find a job, possibly working with troubled youths and maybe helping others who have been wrongfully accused and imprisoned.

In the short term, Pacyon wants to go back to the grave of his father, Al. His father died in 1992, after his son got out of prison, but long before his name was cleared.

"He believed in my innocence. That was enough. He told me never to give up, and I didn't," he said.

A frequent visitor to his father's grave, Pacyon knows what he will tell him the next time he goes to the cemetery.

"I hope you got the message, Dad."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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