Senate turns its back on man's broken life

Published May 3, 2007

Have Republican leaders in the Florida Senate no sense of decency? Is there not a conscience among them?

For the 24 years Alan Crotzer spent wrongfully imprisoned by Florida, he has now received a collective shrug of senatorial shoulders. That the family of Martin Lee Anderson would receive $5-million at the same time only illustrates the arbitrary and callous nature of victims' compensation in the Legislature.

Anderson, 14, lost his life in a prison boot camp following videotaped brutality at the hands of guards, and his family should be compensated. But Crotzer is no less deserving. He spent more than half his life in prison for a rape that DNA results prove he never committed. Unlike the death of Anderson, in fact, his case has been judged in court. He was released in January 2006.

The House members who wanted to combine a $1.25-million payment to Crotzer with the $5-million for Anderson ran up against a Senate president who apparently had exhausted his own playlist. "You do the best you can, " President Ken Pruitt told reporters, "with the resources you have."

That's cruel obfuscation. The Senate had the same chance as the House to consider the Crotzer claims bill, but refused. Both chambers had the opportunity, long ignored, to institute a claims policy that would largely remove all such cases from the political sphere. Funny thing, our lawmakers don't seem to worry about money when handing out tax breaks and other favors to the special interests who employ big-time lobbyists.

The problem begins with a statutory cap on liability, $200, 000, that has not changed in 34 years. One result is that any person with a serious injury and a legitimate claim is forced to go to the Legislature for greater relief. That has translated into the need to hire a lobbyist and a publicist. As the Anderson family knows, the higher the public profile, the greater the chance that lawmakers will feel obliged to respond.

Gov. Charlie Crist brings to this debate the right balance and sense of justice. Crist, who made his name as a hard-liner on crime, says the state must also be just in facing its criminal justice mistakes.

"Lady Justice holds a scale that has two sides, " Crist has said, "and I think it's just as important for prosecutors to prosecute the guilty as it is to exonerate the innocent."

Crotzer, from St. Petersburg, lost 24 years of his life that he can never reclaim. He has married and moved to Tallahassee, and is hoping to find a more stable job than washing dishes. The least the state can do is to help him develop job skills and give him the money to rebuild his broken life.