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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Wrongly imprisoned wait, and wait, to be repaid
State lawmakers see a need for compensation but are slow to pass the needed legislation.
Published January 21, 2008
TALLAHASSEE - Alan Crotzer is working at a landscaping company, hoping one day to be compensated for the 24 years he spent in prison for a rape he didn't commit.
Florida lawmakers have for a couple of years failed to pass a bill to pay him - and he's again asking the Legislature for $1.25-million for the two decades of freedom he gave up.
It's too bad for Crotzer that he doesn't live somewhere else. Several states have automatic compensation for people who have been wrongfully imprisoned and then released - something that's happening more and more because of increasing use of DNA to prove innocence.
But Florida remains one of 28 states that don't guarantee compensation for those who spent precious years behind bars for something they didn't do. Nine men have been freed by DNA in Florida in recent years, but only one has received money.
Crotzer, 47, is seeking money for himself - but he'd rather the state make money available for anyone in his situation. He said most men released after years behind bars - especially those who were, like him, young when imprisoned - have a hard time starting over without help. They're usually broke, and most have no job prospects. All they really know is prison life.
"I don't have any education, I don't have any real job skills. So I'm doing what I can," Crotzer said in a recent interview. "I went on public assistance.
"They really need to put something in place," for compensation, Crotzer said. "How can you take more than half a man's life and expect to do nothing for him?"
In 1982, Crotzer was convicted of robbing a Tampa family and kidnapping and raping a 38-year-old woman and a 12-year-old girl at gunpoint during the crime. Crotzer said he was nowhere near the scene and witnesses corroborated that, but he had a previous robbery conviction when he was 17 and a witness picked him out of a lineup. He was sentenced to 130 years in prison.
Years later, another man convicted in the robbery told police that Crotzer wasn't with them that night and revealed the real rapist. DNA testing along with the other evidence then convinced prosecutors that he wasn't involved. He was released in 2006.
People getting out of prison usually have extraordinary needs, said Jenny Greenberg, policy director for The Innocence Project of Florida, which helps prisoners who claim to be innocent get DNA testing.
"All of these guys suffer from features of post-traumatic stress disorder. They all need immediate mental health care," Greenberg said. Many need other medical care, too, she added.
The state has immunity from large lawsuits, so exonerated prisoners must go to the Legislature and ask for compensation. Lawmakers can pass a special "claims bill" that pays people back for wrongs by the government.
But only Wilton Dedge has managed to get such a bill through the Legislature. Dedge spent 22 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit and in 2005 lawmakers awarded him $2-million.
Dedge didn't just take his money and forget about it. He also wrote Gov. Charlie Crist urging compensation for the others.
"Anyone who suffered as I did deserves compensation," Dedge wrote. "It's not like the money magically dissolves all the pain and trauma and restores our stolen years and lost family, but it is critical and the very least that our state can do."
Senate President Ken Pruitt said last week that compensation for the wrongfully convicted is one of his priorities for this year.
"Government gets it wrong sometimes, and when we do, we must take responsibility," said Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie. Crist has also said the wrongly imprisoned deserve compensation.
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner is sponsoring a bill to provide most exonerated inmates $100,000 for every year they spent behind bars. For Crotzer, that would mean more than $2-million. It would also provide free education - something Crotzer said he'd particularly like to have.
"What as a just and noble society should we do when we've locked someone up and they've spent a significant portion of their lives behind bars when it was wrong?" asked Joyner, D-Tampa. "We have a responsibility to do the right thing."
Leaders in the House and Senate say, however, that some lawmakers would vote for compensation legislation that limits eligibility only to people who have never committed any crimes.
"Legislators can look for reasons why not," Crotzer said. "They should look for reasons to do the right thing."