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Compensation bill stalling

Alan Crotzer is awaiting $1.25-million compensation for 24 years in prison for rapes he did not commit.

Alan Crotzer is awaiting $1.25-million compensation for 24 years in prison for rapes he did not commit.

TALLAHASSEE — Alan Crotzer's voice was barely audible last month as he spoke from the front row of a busy room at the Florida Capitol: "I accept."

Moments earlier, Rep. Jack Seiler had said to him, "I don't think we ever said 'We're sorry.' What we put you through and what you had to live through, on behalf of the state, we owe you an apology.

"And I hope at some point you can accept that apology."

Today, the Florida Senate is expected to make good on that sentiment by signaling it will vote next week on a plan already approved by the House to pay Crotzer $1.25-million for the 24 years he spent in prison for a double rape he did not commit. DNA evidence exonerated him in 2006.

But the path to justice is much less sure for others who have been or will be wrongly imprisoned.

For three years, lawmakers have tried to establish an automatic system for compensating the wrongly imprisoned so they might avoid the bureaucratic tangle Crotzer and others have had to navigate. But once again, a solution is elusive.

The central problem is over some lawmakers' insistence that automatic payments wouldn't apply to anyone with a prior felony conviction, a measure that would have barred Crotzer.

No other state requires such a "clean hands" provision for restitution. But Florida Republicans, who control the House and Senate, insist on such a requirement.

"Timing is everything in politics, and I think the timing is right to get this bill done," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, sponsor of the House plan (HB 1025).

But the question remains whether the Senate sponsor, Tampa Democrat Arthenia Joyner, will acquiesce. If she doesn't, the bill will falter for another year.

"That's probably where we are now, something or nothing," Joyner conceded Wednesday. "And is the 'something' sufficient enough to move on?"

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have laws that have resulted in payments to nearly half of the 215 prisoners who have been exonerated since the first DNA case in 1989.

None preclude people with prior felonies.

"It makes us a leader in compensation but in all the wrong ways," said Seth Miller, staff attorney for the Innocence Project of Florida. "It's ridiculous."

Florida lawmakers have struggled with the issue since 2005, a year after Wilton Dedge of Brevard County was released from a 22-year prison sentence for rape that DNA evidence proved he didn't commit. He was given $2-million under special legislation. It was then that lawmakers began to work on a process to handle other cases in a uniform, or global, way.

Three years later, frustrations are near a breaking point on both sides of the debate. "If the state messed up, they should be compensated," Dedge told a House panel last month.

Crotzer sat in the same room an hour earlier and celebrated with his advocates as the committee swiftly approved the bill to pay him $1.25-million.

The contrast put Crotzer in an awkward spot, knowing he has secured financial justice but also aware the ability for others to do so is wrapped up in politics.

"At least they are looking at it," said Crotzer, 47, who now lives in Tallahassee with his new wife and works at a landscaping business. "It's a start. You can always come back one day and try to get it right."

But Crotzer himself would have been ineligible under the current legislation because he had a felony arrest — he held up a store and stole some beer — before the double rape conviction that sent him to prison in 1982.

Of the nine people exonerated in Florida by DNA since 2000, including one cleared posthumously, at least four would be excluded, according to Miller. "We don't think any 'clean hands' (provision) is appropriate because it shifts the focus away from the state's wrongdoing."

Bogdanoff insists no one would be a denied a chance to seek compensation. There is always the claims bill process Crotzer has gone through.

There are other differences between the House and Senate plans.

The House version would provide up to $50,000 a year, capped at $1.5-million. The bill also would require a prisoner to go through a judicial proceeding that would determine the need for counseling, health care, education and housing.

Critics say that puts prisoners back into the very system that wronged them. Bogdanoff said she is open to changing the process, but holds firm to the clean hands measure.

"If you're going to hand out checks automatically," she said, "it should be in those cases where there's no question."

The Senate nearly killed its bill last week in a committee meeting. Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, wanted to add the clean hands provision but backed off after it was clear Joyner objected. The bill passed 6-5.

Joyner had already agreed to exclude anyone who has been designated a violent career criminal — a concession the Innocence Project of Florida says it can accept — but she resists a broader exclusion.

Unless she agrees to give up more, the bill will likely die. And with Crotzer having been paid, the pressure to act next year could be diminished.

"I'd like to see it done. I'd like to get as much as we can," said Webster, who is leaving the Legislature this year due to term limits. "It's one step. It's a giant step forward in the whole claims process."

>>Fast facts

How other states compensate

California: Pays up to $100 per day of wrongful incarceration if claimant files within six months after acquittal, pardon, or release and can show he did not "contribute to the bringing about of his arrest or conviction for the crime with which he was charged."

New York: Empowers courts to reasonably compensate wrongfully convicted people who "did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction" and who files a claim within two years of his pardon.

Montana: Provides educational aid to people exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing.

Texas: Pays up to $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration (and $100,000 per year if that person was sentenced to death); compensation for child support payments; one year of counseling.

Source: Innocence Project

Compensation bill stalling 04/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 11:54am]

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