Senators look puny on Crotzer payment

Published May 3, 2007

On this topic of people who were wrongly imprisoned, I would respect the Florida Senate more if its policy simply said: Tough luck. Life ain't fair.

"Tough luck" would be crystal clear. It would say that if the government in Florida manages to kill you wrongfully, there still might be something for your family.

But if you are merely a person wrongly imprisoned, with part of your life stolen forever, you have no financial resource from the state.

This is not to say that "tough luck" would be a good policy, merely a clear one. Instead, what we have in the case of Alan Crotzer is a mealy mouthed Senate just being stubborn and purse-lipped, like Mrs. Grundy.

Good grief! The state imprisoned Crotzer for 24 years for a crime he did not commit. He was exonerated by DNA evidence and released last year. In a similar case in 2005 the Legislature awarded a man named Wilton Dedge $2-million.

Our state House - which, frankly, often has a harder head and a tighter wallet than the Senate - voted to award Crotzer $1.25-million, or $50, 000 per year of his wrongful confinement. Our governor, Charlie Crist, is for it too.

But not so the Senate, based on two reasons:

(1) Crotzer's case isn't a "budget priority."

(2) There's no "system" for handling these kinds of cases, and the Legislature is dealing with them one by one. Maybe we'll get back to you next year.

The first reason is bogus, of course. It ain't even a reason.

A "budget priority" is whatever the Senate leadership says it is. Sheesh, the Senate started out this session wanting to spend a lot more money than the House did; here the House actually is willing.

As for the second reason, argued by the wonderfully named Daniel Webster, the Senate's majority leader, the objection is easily dealt with.

No system? No process? Phooey. Our own Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, came up with a perfectly simple idea: give 'em $50, 000 a year. There's your system.

There is talk, too, about a "clean hands" rule - requiring that the person have no record. That would rule out Crotzer, who has a youthful robbery in his past.

But innocent is innocent, and 24 wrong years is 24 wrong years. If you want, make the "clean hands" rule prospective, forfeiting what's left for any future offenses.

The Senate could act with a wave of the hand now that the 800-pound gorilla of the session, property tax reform, has been sent away until June.

But if fairness isn't persuasive, maybe some crass political considerations will help. These refusals tend to become, over time, more and more indefensible.

Look at how Jim Davis had to apologize in last year's governor's race for an old vote against compensation in the cases of Freddie Lee Pitts and Wilbert Lee, wrongfully convicted in a 1963 murder.

This brings us back to the opening proposition: It would be more clear, at least, for the Senate to adopt an official policy of "tough luck." The result would be the same for Crotzer, but at least we wouldn't have to pretend and harrumph over "budget priorities."

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