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At long last: 'You're a free man'

Wrongly imprisoned, Alan Crotzer walks into court in shackles and walks out with his arms raised..

By CANDACE RONDEAUX
Published January 24, 2006


[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Alan Crotzer and his sister Wanda Sanders share a long-awaited embrace.
More photos
Video from Tampa Bay's 10

TAMPA - He barely slept all night. In the morning at the jail, he picked at his grits and boiled eggs. His mind raced as the jailhouse bus rumbled slowly to the courthouse.

After spending half his life in prison for another man's sins, he knew redemption was near.

When Alan Crotzer, 45, walked into court Monday, his hands were shackled but his heart felt free.

He served nearly 24 years for a July 1981 robbery and two Tampa rapes he did not commit. While Crotzer had hoped the truth would come out, it wasn't until he stood before Hillsborough Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett that he began to believe years of injustice were finally behind him.

On Monday morning, a prosecutor asked Padgett to throw out Crotzer's conviction, saying DNA evidence, eyewitness testimony and a review of other scientific evidence pointed to Crotzer's innocence.

"The state has concluded that there is significant doubt about his guilt," said Assistant State Attorney Michael Sinacore.

Then came the moment of Alan Crotzer's dreams.

"Mr. Crotzer are you ready to hear what you've waited so long to hear," Padgett asked.

"Yes, sir," Crotzer replied, tears welling up in his eyes.

"Motion granted. You're a free man."

The courtroom erupted in applause. "Amen," people said. "Amen." Hands and feet still chained, Crotzer smiled and nodded to his family and friends as bailiffs approached to uncuff him.

"Take them off. Take those things off him," several in the crowd muttered loudly.

Moments later, Crotzer was outside, sun shining on his face, his fists raised in triumph.

A man in the crowd was shouting something, borrowed from another time.

"Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, he's free at last."

The words followed him - camera crews, too - echoing down a hallway as Crotzer and his defense team headed into the Hillsborough County Public Defender's Office for a press conference.

He stood at a long table with New York lawyer David Menschel and longtime advocate Sam Roberts. Crotzer wore a lavender shirt and a pair of khakis his defense team had purchased for him.

He thanked those who had helped.

"It's been a long time coming," he said. "I thank God for this day."

Then he turned to the three women who had said all along he was innocent.

Pearl Daniels, Margie James and Sharon Watson were young women in their teens and 20s when they first saw Crotzer. It was April 19, 1982, and Crotzer was seated alongside their brother Douglas James in a Tampa courtroom. A day earlier, their other brother, Corlenzo James, had been sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting involvement in the robbery as part of a plea deal.

Two decades later, the three sisters vowed to keep a promise to their mother. They would help get out the truth about Crotzer.

"Your mom is smiling down on us right now and my mother's right there with her," Crotzer said.

People in the room were smiling, too. But it was hard not to cry as Crotzer and his attorneys talked about the mistakes that had led to a sentence of 130 years.

"It took an all-white jury less than an hour to pronounce Alan Crotzer guilty. It took nearly 24 years to undo that verdict," Menschel said. "I shudder when I think about how many innocent people haven't been as lucky as Al."

Menschel and Fort Lauderdale lawyer Martin McClain commended the State Attorney's Office for cooperating with Crotzer's defense team. But they and others said that such cooperation is rare and that serious hurdles remain for the wrongly convicted.

"It's lovely to free a person because it does take the heavens aligning in the right way," said the Florida Innocence Initiative's Jennifer Greenberg. "But at the end of the day, where's the compensation? We have a debt to pay Alan."

His attorneys plan to push for compensation.

Defense team member Jeff Walsh said the man who kept silent for years about his role in the crimes owes Crotzer, too.

Walsh said the system failed when detectives did not act on tips that implicated James brothers' childhood friend, Alphonso "Funye" Green.

Walsh noted that Green is still a free man, living in St. Petersburg. The St. Petersburg Times' attempts to reach Green were unsuccessful.

No charges have been filed against him, and Sinacore has not spoken publicly about his office's plans regarding Green . The statute of limitations on the crimes has expired.

Crotzer echoed Walsh's sentiments, saying investigator mistakes had been costly not only for him but for the victims, who now must grapple with the knowledge that one assailant went unpunished.

"If I didn't do it, somebody did," Crotzer said. "These people have got to relive this. They should have got it right the first time."

The press conference done, Crotzer turned to his sister, Wanda Faye Sanders, and hugged her tightly.

Moments later, he was heading down the highway toward a Tampa hotel and a hot bath, dialing everyone he could on the first cell phone he had ever used.

Up in his room, he inspected a pair of bright new sneakers and fingered a Nike track suit he planned to wear to his homecoming party.

Then he ran through a long list of things to do. Reconnect with his daughter and grandchildren. Get a driver's license. Find a job, a home, a car he can afford.

"I just want to do good and show people that I can make it," he said.

But, first there was a cookout at the James family's childhood home in St. Petersburg.

There was Crotzer, sitting under a live oak, trying to eat pork chops and banana pudding while a German television reporter thrust a microphone toward him.

How were the chops? That was the question.

Crotzer was savoring everything.

"They're real good," he said.

As the cameras and reporters left, more friends and neighbors trickled in.

Some remembered how the James brothers had sat out front in their father's borrowed Buick 25 years ago, plotting the crime that cost Crotzer so much of his life.

"This is right where it all began," Daniels, one of the sisters, said.

"And right where it all ended."

--Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 813 226-3371 or rondeaux@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 24, 2006, 04:25:55]


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