Thursday, February 21, 2008

Compensation For Wrongly Jailed Man A `Priority'

February 21, 2008

By Marc Caputo-The Miami Herald

After spending 24 years in prison for two rapes he didn't commit, Alan Crotzer will likely win $1.25 million in state compensation now that the leader of the Florida Senate announced Wednesday that the case will be ``a priority of the Senate.''

Senate President Ken Pruitt's decision is a near-180 from last legislative session, when he blocked a compensation bill for Crotzer on procedural grounds, despite the entreaties of his own members, the House and Gov. Charlie Crist, who called the case ``a no-brainer.''

Crotzer, 47, didn't care Wednesday about why Pruitt changed his mind. He said he was just happy that he was finally close to getting something for the quarter-century he lost in the ''evil'' of the prison system.

''I've never lost faith in people. Ken Pruitt has a good heart. Even though I was done wrongly, I find that people, when they're given time and understanding, do the right thing,'' Crotzer said. ``It gives me real optimism.''

Pruitt's main objection to Crotzer's compensation bill last year: He and House Speaker Marco Rubio had agreed ahead of time to approve a dozen compensation bills, and Crotzer wasn't one of them.

Pruitt didn't give much reason for supporting Crotzer's claim this time around, save that Crotzer was the ''poster child'' for those exonerated on the strength of DNA evidence. ''The Crotzer bill will be a priority of the Senate as, I believe, it is a priority of the House,'' Pruitt said Wednesday.

Another priority: a law to automatically compensate wrongfully convicted Floridians so that they won't have to suffer through the legislative process.

Crotzer's claim gives him about $50,000 for each year he spent in prison. That's less than the $2 million given to Wilton Dedge, who was the fourth Florida man exonerated by DNA. Crotzer was fifth and, including this lawmaking session, will have sought compensation three times since his release in 2003.

Since then, he has moved from St. Petersburg to Tallahassee.

This year, Pruitt said, he and Rubio will likely agree on a number of other claims bills to compensate Floridians wronged by either the state or local governments.

Under Florida law, victims of government carelessness need the Legislature to approve any payout over $200,000 per incident -- even if the money in question was decided by a judge, jury or a local government.

Dozens of claims languish year after year, prompting Pruitt and Rubio last year to be the first presiding officers in years to start clearing out the backlog.

Jenny Greenberg, the head of the Innocence Project, which helped exonerate Crotzer, said a ''universal claims bill'' for the wrongfully convicted will help, but hopes that lawmakers won't make the bill so restrictive that victims of the justice system won't be able to get money to get back on their feet.

''It's not just Alan Crotzer who's affected,'' she said.

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