Prosecutor: Set inmate free
Alan Crotzer was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison. Attorneys hope the 45-year-old will be freed this month.
By CANDACE RONDEAUX
Published January 14, 2006
[Times photo: William Dunkley]
Sisters Pearl Daniels, left, 50, Margie James, 53, and Sharon Watson, 41, of St. Petersburg, are trying to help free Alan Crotzer (right), who was convicted with their brother Douglas James of rape and robbery and has served almost 24 years of a more than 100-year sentence. They say Crotzer is innocent.
DNA could free longtime inmate (Jan. 11)
DNA tests, word on street agree (Dec. 11, 2005)
TAMPA - For nearly 24 years, Alan Crotzer of St. Petersburg sat in state prison, insisting he wasn't the man who raped two women one horrible night in Tampa.
On Friday, Hillsborough prosecutors said he should go free.
Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober asked a judge to throw out Crotzer's 1982 conviction and vacate his 100-year-plus prison sentence, citing DNA evidence that didn't match Crotzer and eyewitnesses who said he wasn't involved in the crime.
"After carefully weighing all available evidence, the State Attorney's Office has concluded that significant doubt exists as to Mr. Crotzer's guilt in this case," said a statement from Ober's office. Ober, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment further until after a Jan. 23 hearing.
The decision would mark the fifth time in recent years that a Florida inmate has been exonerated by DNA evidence. Once free, Crotzer, 45, would join a growing list of exonerated prisoners, adding to Florida's rank as the state with the most wrongful convictions on the books, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
"Today is a great and terrible day," said Sam Roberts, a member of Crotzer's defense team. "Although this tragic miscarriage of justice will finally be corrected, Alan Crotzer has spent more than half of his life in prison for crimes he didn't commit."
David Menschel, one of Crotzer's attorneys, said he hopes Crotzer can walk out of prison a free man after the Jan. 23 hearing on the state attorney's motion to vacate the conviction and sentence. He said Crotzer was "overwhelmed" Friday when attorneys told him the news in a phone call to the Polk Correctional Institution.
"It's something that he's dreamed about and it's also something that's beyond his wildest dreams," Menschel said.
The crime took place July 8, 1981. During the investigation, the victims, who were white, told detectives they were followed home from a restaurant by three black men in a beat up Buick. Moments later, the assailants shoved their way into the victims' Tampa apartment with a sawed-off shotgun and bound their hands and feet with neckties. The robbers kidnapped a 12-year-old girl and 38-year-old woman, and hours later raped them and left them bound to a tree in an empty field in eastern Hillsborough.
The 38-year-old woman picked Crotzer's face from a photo lineup.
Crotzer was arrested two days later at his girlfriend's St. Petersburg home.
Nearly a year later, in April 1982, an all-white Hillsborough jury convicted Crotzer and his co-defendant, Douglas James, of multiple counts of sexual battery, armed robbery, false imprisonment and aggravated assault. A judge sentenced both men to more than 100 years in prison.
In the days and months after the robbery and rapes, the victims, who are not being identified because of the nature of the crimes, recounted the events of that night to detectives, prosecutors and later jurors. But a review of trial transcripts and investigative records reveals that the five people who were robbed at gunpoint gave conflicting descriptions of their assailants, Crotzer's attorneys said.
Still in prison, James, 52, came forward three years ago to attest to Crotzer's innocence. A statement he gave Crotzer's defense team is part of the evidence reviewed by prosecutors before Friday's decision.
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times last month, James, formerly of St. Petersburg, admitted raping the woman and said his brother, Corlenzo James, 46, raped the woman and the girl, while a childhood friend stood by.
"I'm trying to do the best I can to shed some light. If you can't come clean with yourself, you can't come clean with anybody," James said. "Al is innocent."
Crotzer's incarceration has cost him 24 years and left him isolated. He was unable to attend his mother's funeral when she died of lung cancer three years ago. Meanwhile, he has had only sporadic contact with his older sister, Wanda Faye Sanders, and his nephew, Antonio Lovett. Reached at home Friday in St. Petersburg, both said they were shocked when a Times reporter delivered news of the decision. Sanders said she knew all along her brother was innocent.
"Everything has taken a toll on us. It's wrong. It's wrong the way they did him," Sanders said. "It's not right that just because we didn't have no money that they railroaded my brother."
Crotzer's case first came to light in 2002 after he turned to the Innocence Project-New York, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongly convicted. Roberts and Menschel, then working with the group, became convinced of Crotzer's innocence.
In the beginning they faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Menschel said. Case files were hard to find and material from the crime was tested twice before a California lab concluded that DNA evidence excluded Crotzer as the rapist.
The lab's report was sent to the State Attorney's Office in October. Menschel and others on the team lauded prosecutors for taking the rare step of removing many legal hurdles after attorneys filed a motion last February asking the courts to free Crotzer.
"Had it not been for the Hillsborough State Attorney Office's unbelievable cooperation, this case would not have gone this way," Menschel said. "Alan's life has been stolen from him, and it's only through a miracle and the hard work of lots and lots of good people that he's going to get it back."
Some of those people include the James brothers' three sisters, who have tried for years to convince authorities of Crotzer's innocence.
Pearl Daniels said her brothers, Douglas and Corlenzo James, and a friend drove to Tampa that long-ago night after police named Corlenzo James as a suspect in an armed robbery in St. Petersburg. Daniels said she knew her brothers were involved, but Crotzer didn't fit.
Hearing the news Friday, the sisters' struggle for justice finally seemed worth it. Daniels and her sister Margie James yelled a few hallelujahs.
"We've been telling them for 25 years that he's innocent," Daniels said, a smile spreading across her face.
All three sisters have vowed to support Crotzer when he gets out.
He'll need all the help he can get, Crotzer's attorneys say. Prominent Florida death row attorney Martin McClain assisted with Crotzer's case and said the defense team is likely to push for the state to compensate him for his wrongful conviction.
McClain, who has worked on more than 155 capital cases and has had a hand in almost all of Florida's DNA exonerations, said it is tough for the wrongfully convicted to adjust to life on the outside.
"I think the need for compensation in Alan's case is obvious, but there's also a need for rehabilitation," McClain said. "I definitely think there should be some compensation or assistance. On the other hand, I don't want other prosecutors to see this and be afraid that admitting a mistake is going to be costly."
Last month, state lawmakers voted to pay $2-million to Wilton Dedge, freed after serving 22 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit. The move renewed calls from capital defense attorneys and criminal justice advocacy groups for the Legislature to take up the issue of compensating those wrongfully convicted in Florida.
"Alan Crotzer was convicted in the state of Florida, which means the state and the public played a part in this. We're all mixed up in this," Menschel said. "This is not just some judge's mistake or a juror's mistake or a prosecutor or a defense attorney's mistake.
"This is our mistake and we should be humbled by it."
Times staff writer Graham Brink and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 813 226-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified January 14, 2006, 01:39:15]
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