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For some, justice; for others, anguish

How much is a man's life worth? For William Dillon, it's $1.35 million.

That's $50,000 for each one of the 27 years Dillon spent in state prison for a murder he did not commit. Wrongly imprisoned, he was tortured by fellow inmates, and his teeth rotted away as he spent more than half his life behind bars until DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Dillon, 52, of Satellite Beach, was in tears last Friday as he watched the state House of Representatives pass a bill to compensate him for a horrific injustice. "You can either be real glum and sad and have ulcers about it, or you can just put it past you and say, 'I'm going to be positive about it,' " Dillon said.

Dillon is fortunate. Influential legislators such as Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Rep. Steve Crisafulli, both Republicans from Merritt Island, have championed Dillon's cause and kept fighting after a similar bill failed late in last year's session.

But Florida's claims bill process is arbitrary and byzantine and subject to all kinds of political influence. Some victims get justice while others languish in limbo for years.

Under a law in effect since 1970, state and local governments are largely immune from lawsuits when they commit negligence. Even after juries rule in their favor, victims must hire lawyers and in many cases lobbyists and travel to Tallahassee to seek help.

Dillon's unpaid attorney, former Florida State University president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, was in the Legislature when sovereign immunity was eliminated for a single year in 1969. But, he said, school boards and counties protested that they could be bankrupted by big lawsuits and got the law reinstated a year later.

A Senate committee on Monday took up more than a dozen claims bills, including two cases from Tampa Bay with tragic consequences.

Rachel Hoffman was shot to death in Tallahassee in 2008 in a botched drug sting in which she acted as a confidential informer, and two men are serving life sentences for her death. The 23-year-old FSU graduate was the only child of Marjorie Weiss and Irv Hoffman of Palm Harbor.

"Rachel was my universe. The pain of losing her is endless," Hoffman told senators, who approved a bill that would require Tallahassee to pay the family $2.4 million in compensation, in addition to $200,000 that the family has received under the limits of sovereign immunity.

In the audience was Traci Wohlgemuth of New Port Richey. Her daughter Jennifer was 21 when a Pasco sheriff's deputy — on a high-speed chase, trailing other pursuing officers and not using his siren — slammed his cruiser into the young woman's Honda Accord in 2005. She suffered irreversible brain damage and, her mother told senators, has severe short-term memory loss.

"We've waited for seven years," Traci Wohlgemuth told senators. "Living with Jennifer is like living with someone with Alzheimer's, except she's 28, not 78."

Jeremiah Hawkes, an attorney for the Sheriff's Office, objected to a judge's ruling that the Wohlgemuths receive $8.6 million from Pasco, which he said was more than 10 percent of Sheriff Chris Nocco's budget. "That's a huge whack," Hawkes testified. "It's just not a loss that the Sheriff's Office can absorb." The Senate Rules Committee approved the Wohlgemuths' claim on a 10-0 vote, as chairman John Thrasher told Hawkes it was "irresponsible" that Pasco officials have refused to try to settle the case.

Said Hawkes: "I don't have the authority to make an offer."

For some, justice; for others, anguish 02/27/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 27, 2012 11:32pm]

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