Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cleared Man May Get Paid in Nick of Time

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

By Emily Minor Palm Beach Post-Florida

This time around, Alan Crotzer might get his money.

"From Al's perspective, finally having a glimmer of hope - to me, that's a hallelujah," said Michael Olenick, Crotzer's attorney.

Crotzer spent 24 years, six months, 13 days and four hours in prison for violent crimes he did not commit, and now Olenick is trying to get him compensated through a special bill in the Florida Legislature. These kinds of "oops, we're sorry" compensation votes are always touch-and-go, filled with emotion and politics and finger-crossing.

But this time, Olenick is pretty sure his client will see some money. They're asking for $1.25 million, and there seems to be the right support.

Initially represented by the Innocence Project of Florida, Crotzer got out of prison in 2006 after DNA showed he could not have committed the crimes. Then from St. Petersburg, Crotzer, 47, was in prison for the 1981 kidnapping and rape of a Tampa woman and a 12-year-old girl. He was 20 years old.

"When I think about Al, I swear, I could break down and cry," Olenick said Monday.

Crotzer's compensation case is being argued on its own because Florida does not have a law setting uniform paybacks for DNA exonerees. Each one has to be argued on its own.

And there are more of them than you'd think.

First, and maybe last, to get paid

The national Innocence Project has helped free 214 people since 1989. The average age at the time of incarceration was 26.

Collectively, those 214 people served 2,640 years in prison.

Jenny Greenberg, policy director for the Innocence Project of Florida, takes all that dirty data and makes good use of her outrage.

"They were given absolutely nothing ... not a hundred dollars, not a bus ticket, nothing," she said.

Crotzer, who today is married and works as a landscaper, is one of nine Florida men who spent time in prison and later were found innocent based on DNA evidence. The others are Larry Bostic, Orlando Boquete, Cody Davis, Wilton Dedge, Luis Diaz, Chad Heins, Frank Lee Smith and Jerry Frank Townsend.

So far, Dedge is the only man to get money from the legislature.

Now - as it seems likely that Crotzer will get paid this year - Greenberg is livid about a separate "global" proposal before the legislature that would set a $50,000-a-year compensation rate for Florida's DNA exonerees.

Some bill better than no bill?

It sounds good, in theory, but there's a catch in House Bill 1025.

A big one, from her standpoint.

"It's absolutely draconian," Greenberg said.

If the DNA exoneree had any kind of felony record - any kind of felony past at all - the state would not pay the money. This language is called the "clean-hands provision."

And guess what?

Of the nine men on Florida's exoneree list, all of them have a felony record. Every single one.

"It's just despicable," said Greenberg, who said none of the 22 states with this kind of law has a clean-hands provision.

"It doesn't matter if you get arrested at age 18 for a nonviolent crime," she said.

Olenick said the House bill is flawed, but at least it's movement on a subject he's seen from a very intimate perch.

"Pass something, for God's sake, and then let's work on the changes," he said.

I guess in Tallahassee, something's better than nothing. But Greenberg's indignity - not to mention her legal work on this cause - strikes a nerve.

Wouldn't it be better to button up the lip service and pass a law that actually helps these men?

You know, the men we put in prison for crimes they didn't commit.

The men set free without a single dime in their pocket.

I guess I thought that was the whole point.

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