Michael Mayo News Columnist
9:52 PM EDT, April 2, 2008
9:52 PM EDT, April 2, 2008
Twenty-four years, six months, 13 days and four hours.
That's how much time Alan Crotzer spent locked up for a crime he didn't commit.
He recites the figure with practiced ease, not even a grimace crossing his face when he speaks. He told his story again on Tuesday, in a lecture hall packed with law students at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.
"Whatever life I have left, I want to enjoy it," said Crotzer, 47. "I can't afford to be bitter. I don't have time for that."
It's been a little more than two years since he walked free, exonerated in January 2006 after DNA testing proved he didn't take part in a 1981 home invasion, kidnapping and double rape in Tampa.
On Tuesday, the halls at NSU's Shepard Broad Law Center were plastered with fliers of others like Crotzer, wrongly convicted people freed by DNA testing. Crotzer wore a T-shirt that read: "214 ... and counting."
The shirt, promoting the Innocence Project legal group that helped Crotzer win freedom, was already outdated. The group's national exoneration tally has climbed to 215, including nine in Florida.
"I just want to let you know there are a lot of Alan Crotzers out there," he said.
Crotzer went away at 21. He got his life back at 45.
He now works a $9.50-an-hour job for a landscaping firm in Tallahassee. He got married last year, has two stepchildren, 14 and 12. He voted for the first time in January. He got his first passport two months ago.
"I just want to be an average person," he said.
Crotzer spoke of the challenges adjusting to a changed world. He was baffled the first-time he encountered an automated-sensor faucet. Before he went to prison, there were no such thing as cell phones or the Internet. He said many of his friends from his St. Petersburg neighborhood are dead or addicted to crack cocaine, which didn't exist before he left.
The day of his release, one of his attorneys asked if he wanted to go to Starbucks.
"Sure ... what's a Starbucks?" Crotzer replied.
Now he awaits some semblance of justice, in the form of a check from the state.
"There's no amount of money that can give me back my freedom," Crotzer said.
Crotzer might soon get $1.25 million from the Legislature, $50,000 for each year he was incarcerated. Last week the House unanimously approved a claims bill for Crotzer. The Senate is expected to take a first vote on the bill today and could finalize approval next week.
Florida is among 28 states that have no compensation system for the wrongfully imprisoned. "If you're a convicted felon, when you finish your sentence they give you $100 cash and a bus ticket when you leave prison," said Michael Olenick, one of Crotzer's attorneys. "But if you've been wrongly convicted and they let you out, you don't get $100 or the bus ticket."
It's up to wronged individuals to lobby the Legislature for compensation, an inconsistent and maddening process. Last year, the Senate didn't take up Crotzer's claims bill. So far, only one of Florida's nine DNA-exonerated inmates, Wilton Dedge, has gotten a claims bill passed ($2 million in 2005).
A less capricious system could soon arrive, with the Legislature considering a broader bill (HB1025) that would set an automatic process for the wrongfully convicted. It would cap payment at $50,000 per year of imprisonment or $2 million.
But the bill has an onerous "clean hands" provision that would exclude anybody with a prior felony conviction. Under this bill, Crotzer wouldn't qualify for compensation, because he robbed a convenience store of two cases of beer when he was 18. The other remaining Florida DNA exonerees would also be disqualified for previous felonies.
"It's not perfect, but it would be a start," Olenick said of the bill.
If Crotzer's individual claims bill passes, Gov. Charlie Crist has said he would sign it. Crotzer met Crist recently at his Capitol office.
"He looked me in the eye and apologized," Crotzer said. "That meant something."
Michael Mayo's column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Read him online weekdays at Sun -Sentinel.com/mayoblog. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4508.
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