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Senate president wants a better system to compensate the wrongfully convicted.
By Jennifer Liberto, Times Staff Writer
Published February 21, 2008
[Joseph Garnett, Jr. | Times (2006)]
TALLAHASSEE - Florida leaders say they are committed to paying Alan Crotzer for the 24 years he spent in prison and to creating a process that automatically compensates some other wrongfully convicted inmates.
Despite a tight budget year, Florida Senate President Ken Pruitt said Wednesday that the two goals are among his top priorities this Legislative session. The House has also indicated it wants to do both.
The House and Gov. Charlie Crist had pushed to give Crotzer $1.25-million last year for his wrongful convictions, but the bill did not pass. This year, the exact amount has yet to be agreed upon, but Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said she plans to ask for $1.25-million.
Crotzer was surprised to learn Wednesday that he was a priority for the Florida Senate but said he had remained hopeful that the Legislature would come through.
"Money won't ever give back what was taken from me, but it can help me start a new life," said Crotzer, 47, who spent nearly all of his adult life behind bars.
In 1981, a jury found him and another man guilty of robbing a Tampa family and raping a 38-year-old woman and a 12-year-old girl. A judge sentenced Crotzer and his co-defendant to 130 years in prison. In January 2006, a judge threw out his conviction, because DNA evidence collected at the scene didn't match Crotzer's DNA and eyewitnesses said he wasn't involved in the crime.
Crotzer and those who have been working on his behalf said they were especially thankful for such a financial commitment, given that the Florida Legislature is looking to cut several billion dollars out of the state budget this year. Most agencies face cutbacks.
"It's definitely good news in a tight budget year, but justice sometimes carries a price tag," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Green Acres, who had filed the bill to compensate Crotzer last year.
Crotzer is among dozens of people who ask the Legislature each year for compensation awarded in courts. Under Florida law, victims of state negligence can collect up to $200,000 after a court verdict. Only lawmakers, with final approval of the governor, can approve more money. The process is cumbersome, politically charged and often involves lawyers and lobbyists who take a cut. (Crotzer's team is working for free.)
This year, House and Senate leaders agree they want to pass legislation to create an automatic process that would make it easier for those who have been wrongly convicted to collect some compensation, without petitioning the Legislature year after year.
The House bill would give some who have been wrongly convicted $50,000 for each year they spent in prison, up to a maximum of $1.5-million. It would also provide some housing assistance, health insurance reimbursement and limited free school tuition.
However, it wouldn't apply to everyone. Republican leaders in both chambers say they want the bill to prevent released prisoners with prior felony convictions from being entitled to the automatic compensation. That means people like Crotzer, who was previously convicted in 1981 for stealing a case of beer, wouldn't qualify for automatic compensation under the proposed legislation and would still have to petition the Legislature.
"There doesn't appear to be a huge appetite from the public to give money to folks who have a rap sheet," Bogdanoff said. "It's not going to help everybody, but it's geared toward those people whom the public is most offended by government's wrongful action."
The House Republican version of the bill also says that those who are convicted of felonies after they qualify for their award must give up their money. The Senate Republican version wasn't available yet.
A Democratic version of the bill filed by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, doesn't have the same limitations.
Some wrongfully convicted have prior convictions from when they were juveniles or younger people and are often nonviolent, said Jenny Greenberg, who works for the Innocence Project of Florida, a group that advocates for those in the state prison population believed to be wrongly convicted. She also argues that later convictions could result from trauma caused by years of wrongful imprisonment.
"It's wonderful that the Senate president has made this issue a priority," Greenberg said. "Let's hope the Legislature can agree on a fair method of treating these people equally and paying them expeditiously."
The Crotzer case
July 8, 1981: Corlenzo James, his brother Douglas and a third man drive to Tampa, where they rob five people at an apartment on Yorkshire Court, then abduct and rape a 12-year-old girl and 38-year-old woman.
July 9, 1981: Detectives show the five victims dozens of photos. Some identify Corlenzo and Douglas James. The 38-year-old woman identifies Alan Crotzer as the ringleader and double rapist.
July 10, 1981: At his girlfriend's home in St. Petersburg, Crotzer is arrested in the robbery and rapes.
April 22, 1982: A jury convicts Crotzer and Douglas James of robbery and rape, and they are each sentenced to more than 100 years in prison.
December 2002: The Innocence Project in New York begins investigating Crotzer's claim that he was wrongly convicted and asks Hillsborough prosecutors for permission to test for DNA on evidence from the case.
May 2003: Douglas James tells an Innocence Project attorney that he was one of the robbers, fingers his brother, Corlenzo, as the ringleader and says another man - not Crotzer - was there that night.
October 2005: Hillsborough prosecutors get a report that DNA tests show Crotzer was not the rapist.
Jan. 23, 2006: Hillsborough Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett throws out the conviction and frees Crotzer.
May 1, 2007: At the urging of Gov. Charlie Crist, the Florida Legislature considers an award of $1.25-million to Crotzer for his imprisonment. The measure fails with opponents citing budgetary constraints.
Compiled by Angie Drobnic Holan
Source: Times archives
[Last modified February 21, 2008, 01:32:05]