tampabay.com

Two wrongs; one is repaid

Legislators say $4.8M for Andersons, nothing for Crotzer.

By ALEX LEARY AND REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published May 2, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Martin Lee Anderson and Alan Crotzer's lives intersected Tuesday on the floor of the Florida House.

A boy and a man. Both black. One robbed of life, the other of freedom.

But politicians decided there was room for only one in the state budget.

The House approved a $4.8-million award for Anderson's parents, who lost their son to the violence of a boot camp. But it backed off $1.25-million for Crotzer, the St. Petersburg man who spent 24 1/2 years in prison on a wrongful conviction.

Had it pushed on Crotzer, Senate President Ken Pruitt warned, the Anderson bill would not have been approved.

So Crotzer, who traveled to the Capitol to lobby in his own behalf, and was treated to hugs from tearful lawmakers in both chambers, may have to wait another year.

"If there's no way to salvage it in the next 3 1/2 days, it's a true shame," Gov. Charlie Crist said. "I feel for him."

While the Legislature has not found $1.25-million for Crotzer, the budget includes that much for land acquisition at Gulf Coast Community College and phase 1 of the Polk County wastewater treatment system, among other projects.

"What happened to Martin Lee Anderson was horrible," Crotzer said. "But what happened to me was terrible, too."

Crotzer just moved to Tallahassee with his new wife and her two children. He has an offer to wash dishes at Andrew's, a popular downtown restaurant, but is seeking something more stable.

Fearful of precedent

The disparate fates of Anderson, 14, and Crotzer, 46, expose the thorny and complex politics behind claims bills. They are called that because the Legislature must approve any amount exceeding $200,000.

Anderson died last year after a violent encounter with guards at the Bay County boot camp for juvenile offenders. The case became a national story, prompting Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to join hundreds of college students in a march on the Capitol.

The Bay County Sheriff's Office already has settled with the family, paying it $2.4-million. Crist told the parents he'd fight for the state to pay an additional $5-million. (Technically the Legislature would be paying $4.8-million, since the state has already awarded $200,000.)

It was Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who agreed to allow the Anderson case to be heard despite missing the deadline for claims bills this session. The bill pushed forward and came up for vote on Friday.

But some lawmakers were uncomfortable because the criminal case against the guards and nurse accused of contributing to Anderson's death has not gone to trial.

"I don't think the Florida Senate wants to send anybody out of here with the message that if you do a crime in Florida we get to convict you in the Florida Senate long before a court of law does," said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.

The bill passed anyway.

Crotzer, by contrast, did not have much luck from the start. The House had initially stalled on a claims bill to pay him $1.25-million, or $50,000 for each year be spent in prison for double rape in Hillsborough County. After DNA evidence exonerated him, Crotzer was released in January 2006, the same month Anderson died.

But then the bill began to move, in part due to the urging of the governor. Crotzer appeared at meetings. He recounted how he has been befuddled by cell phones and automatic faucets in the men's room since his release. He went to the Senate, too. Lawmakers shook his hand, gave him hugs.

The House last week passed out the bill, but in the Senate it was held up in a committee overseen by Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa. Crist said Tuesday that Senate leadership had set budget priorities and the Crotzer bill was not one of them.

There were philosophical considerations as well. Sen. Daniel Webster, the majority leader, said he opposed arbitrarily handling such cases one by one, based on the ability of people and their lawyers to get the Legislature's attention.

A bill that would set standards for compensating all wrongfully convicted people appeared dead this year, so Crotzer and his advocates focused on his case.

Like Bennett, Sen. Crist thinks the wrong bill was heard this year. "Personally I think the two bills were flip-flopped. For a bill to come to the Legislature, it should have gone through the court system."

In, out, in, then gone

On Monday, House Democrats tried to force the Senate's hand. They attached the Crotzer bill to the Anderson bill. But when the bill hit the full House floor Tuesday, they backed down.

Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, fought to keep the two linked together. We can talk to the Senate, she told worried Democrats. "Just give me a shot," she said.

The bill passed.

A half-hour later, Bogdanoff announced that the Anderson bill had to be reheard and stripped of the Crotzer claim, or it would be defeated in the Senate.

The House voted again, leaving them with only the Anderson bill.

"Right now, I'm ashamed of those in the Florida Senate that are trying not to compensate Mr. Crotzer. It's disgraceful," said Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie.

Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, also disagreed with removing Crotzer from the measure. "I'm just appalled at what we did today," he said. "That man deserves some compensation."

Pruitt said the Senate was generous in paying claims. The Senate passed 12 local claims bills, he said, and agreed to take up the $8.5-million award for Minouche Noel, the South Florida teenager who was paralyzed as an infant by a state-contracted doctor.

"You do the best you can with the resources you have," Pruitt said. "I'm very proud of the budget we put together."

Staff writers Steve Bousquet and Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this story.