Wednesday, April 11, 2007
A wrongfully convicted man took a step toward receiving compensation from the state Senate, but the House is sounding reluctant.
BY MARC CAPUTO
TALLAHASSEE -- The soft-spoken man took just 18 seconds to tell state senators the story of how the state robbed him of a quarter-century of his life:
"My name is Alan Crotzer. I was wrongly convicted in 1981. I spent 24 years, six months, 13 days and four hours wrongly convicted for a crime I did not do. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to come up here and speak to you. I thank you for hearing this bill. I ask for your support and compensation. I know time is of the essence.''
Crotzer, 46, didn't need to say anything else Tuesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which quickly approved a bill to compensate him and any other ex-convict $50,000 for every year they spent in prison for crimes they didn't do. Crotzer's compensation: nearly $1.25 million.
In a rare move just after the vote, the committee's chairman, Miami Republican Sen. Alex Villalobos, called Crotzer to the dais, and whispered a few words into his ear: ``The state of Florida is sorry.''
Crotzer, who hasn't heard such an apology in the year since he was released from prison on the strength of DNA evidence showing he didn't commit two Tampa rapes, left the committee room and wept.
''It means the world to me,'' he said. ``No one has actually offered a real apology to me like that before.''
It's unclear if Crotzer will receive such treatment from the other side of the legislative chamber, the House of Representatives. House members stalled consideration of the bill until one of the strongest voices in Florida government intervened: Gov. Charlie Crist.
Now the bill will be heard next week by the House Safety and Security Council.
''That's a no-brainer,'' Crist said Tuesday. ``It's absolutely the right thing to do. I can't imagine the despair and the difficulty that someone would go through who is wrongfully accused, has to serve time in jail and then gets out and doesn't have that society try to repay them in a responsible way. You can never get those years back.''
Crist got involved at the urging of a letter written by Wilton Dedge, who spent 22 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit. Dedge was awarded $2 million in compensation by the Legislature in late 2005.
Dedge was the fourth Floridian freed by DNA evidence, followed by Crotzer and most recently by Miami's Orlando Bosquete.
Sen. Carey Baker, a Eustis Republican, voted for the bill but said he was concerned it could make the state provide compensation to ''lifelong criminals [with] a rap sheet of 20 to 30 cases.'' But Crotzer's long-ago conviction for stealing beer shouldn't be enough to deny him compensation for the faulty rape conviction, Baker said.
By contrast, Dedge never had a prior conviction. Another difference: Crotzer is black; Dedge is white.
Lawmakers say they're colorblind on the compensation issue, but they struggle to explain why Dedge was worthy of a near-unanimous vote for more compensation than Crotzer, though he spent two fewer years in prison.
''Truthfully, I don't know how to make [sense of] the difference in the adjustment. That's not my deal. There are higher authorities in this state that make those decisions,'' said Rep. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican who chairs the House security council.
House Majority Whip Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, said she'd like to see a more ''standardized'' way of compensating wrongfully convicted people.
''I'd like to come up with something a little bit more comprehensive than simply saying money does it,'' she said. ``Sometimes when we have a situation we throw money at it, but that's not necessarily what they need.''
Crotzer's supporters worry that talk of uniformity in wrongful-conviction cases is a sign House leaders will offer him more free education classes, but not the money he needs to rebuild a life shattered by the regimentation of prison -- the license-plate making, the lights-out, the ''evil'' of the institution, the lack of freedom.
''It's hard for people to understand what we go through. It's frustrating,'' Dedge told The Miami Herald.
He said Crotzer probably broke down Tuesday because ``he's still in shock. You live that nightmare for more than 20 years and you can't turn off all that emotion with a switch.''