tampabay.com

What will open the door this time?

Few explanations arise for the state's denial to an ex-con who did no wrong.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published May 6, 2007


Last week, Alan Crotzer, who spent more then 24 years in prison for a double rape he didn't commit, listed all the things that tricked him into thinking he would get financial compensation from the state Legislature.

There was the 2004 federal law, endorsed by the president, which said people wrongfully incarcerated should get $50,000 for every year spent in prison. It was then up to the states to act. Twenty-one states, including Texas, Alabama and Louisiana, had adopted some form of it.

"So it's time for Florida," Crotzer reasoned.

There was the $2-million awarded in 2005 by the state Legislature to Wilton Dedge, who, like Crotzer, was wrongly convicted of rape. Crotzer spent two more years in prison and was asking for less money - $1.25-million.

"If Dedge got money, I will," Crotzer said he told himself.

There was the sudden zest by the Legislature to honor long-standing claims against the state - eight of them in the past year, totaling millions of dollars.

And, most important of all for Crotzer and his attorney, Mike Olenick, there was the enthusiastic reception Crotzer got in Tallahassee a few weeks ago. The House gave him a standing ovation.

"It was a beautiful thing to see, and I was filled with hope," said Crotzer.

The Legislature left town Friday and Alan Crotzer didn't get a penny. No one righted "the horrible thing" that had happened to him, as Gov. Charlie Crist called it when he pledged Crotzer his support on the Capitol steps.

Crotzer had brought two bills before the Legislature - one for himself and a second that would have set up a process for other wrongly convicted people to get compensation - and the Senate rejected both.

The incredulous reaction to the decision - from Crotzer, from Olenick, from editorial writers and columnists - was only intensified by the lack of a clear explanation from legislators.

Said Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie: "We said, 'Bring the issues forward and vet them out in committee.' But we're not there."

The third Senate committee where the claim to set up a process for compensation was heard - it passed the House and two Senate committees - was the criminal justice appropriations committee chaired by Sen. Victor Crist. Crist, a Tampa Republican, said he supported money for Crotzer but his hands were tied.

"I had to sign to withdraw the bill because I wasn't given the money," he said.

Crist said Pruitt and the Senate leadership could explain.

Pruitt said the bill was held up because of concerns about its "fiscal impact."

Jenny Greenberg, director of the Florida Innocence Initiative, who worked with Olenick and Crotzer, was perplexed: "What fiscal impact? It's a bill to put a uniform process in place, not to give money," she said.

The bill needed more review, Pruitt said, because it would require "revenue estimates," which pointed to "budget implications" in the future.

But, with the session almost over, there was not time for more review. So, the bill died until next year - unless it is resurrected during a June special session at the governor's request.

Greenberg asked the governor Thursday to expand the June session to include Crotzer, but by Friday evening had not received a response.

Saturday morning, in an informal postsession chat, Crist talked briefly about Crotzer.

"For Mr. Crotzer, I think there is hope now," he said.

Crist referred to another claims case, that of Martin Lee Anderson, a teen who died at a state-sponsored boot camp whose family was awarded nearly $5-million from the Legislature. "Because of that ... I think Mr. Crotzer should have much more hope that this is a body that will welcome his plea."

In the meantime, Crotzer and Olenick, who describes himself and his client as "eternal optimists," cast about for answers.

"What hadn't we seen? How could we do better at next year's session?" Olenick asked.

Brandon Dudley, the chief of staff for Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis, who was instrumental in getting the compensation bill passed in that state, said he thinks he knows: "embarrassment."

What happened in Texas, he said, was that Ellis "shone such a strong light" on the wrongly convicted that public pressure forced powerful legislators into compensating them.

"You need someone who is masterful at embarrassing people," said Dudley.

Stephen Saloom, policy director of the national Innocence Project in New York, which keeps statistics on compensation for the wrongly convicted, said that Florida should already be embarrassed. The state has a $2.74-billion budget surplus and could "well afford" to compensate Crotzer and others who are exonerated, he said.

"The federal government compensation plan, which Bush signed and which Florida should adopt, isn't even a drop in the bucket for the state," Saloom said.

Olenick says he's not sure what it will take.

He wonders if legislators want the compensation bill to offer less money and more education, counseling and medical services, though these weren't the reasons they mentioned.

Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said she favored a bill with this kind of tweaking. Thursday afternoon she pledged to work on the global bill over the summer to get it passed next year, and expects to have the support of the Senate leadership.

"Obviously these people need some money, but we also have an obligation to help them with services," she said.

Meanwhile, Crotzer is moving with his new wife and her two children to subsidized housing in Tallahassee. At night he'll wash dishes.

"Think about it," Olenick said. "The only job training he has had was stamping license plates."

Times staff writers Alex Leary and Steve Bousquet and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8068.

Fast Facts:

Other cases

Exonerated inmates and their compensation:

Wilton Dedge, left, wrongly convicted of rape in 1982. He was released in 2004 after 22 years in prison. The Legislature paid him $2-million in December 2005.

Freddie Pitts, left, and Wilbert Lee, below, twice were wrongly convicted of 1963 double murders. They were released in 1975. In 1998, the Legislature paid each $500, 000.