Monday, May 21, 2007

Fairness sought for victims of state

TALLAHASSEE — Wilton Dedge received $2 million in a state settlement in 2005, compensation for an innocent man who spent 22 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Alan Crotzer is innocent, too. He spent 24 years behind bars on a wrongful rape, burglary, robbery and kidnapping conviction before DNA evidence cleared him in 2005. So far, the state's paid him nothing.

That disparity has the original authors of Florida's relief process saying the system they devised is broken. Critics say politics and happenstance now are more important than the merits of each case.

"It's not politics, it's policy," said former state House member, Robert Trammell, a Marianna Democrat who served from 1986-96. "The leadership has been more tightfisted. But I think the policy should be to treat people fairly."

Crotzer agrees.

"I feel like what happened to me was horrible," Crotzer said. "I had a living death."

Gov. Charlie Crist supported compensating Crotzer, but his claims bill died in the legislative session just concluded, a victim of a political web some say shows the imbalance of the claims bill process.

"There were reports senators didn't have enough time," said Crotzer's lawyer, Michael Olenick. "That was always a quandary to me because they had the bill since August. That haunts me."

Though 11 local and two state claims bills were passed this year — notable because no claims bills have passed in two previous regular sessions — many say the claims bills process needs to be changed.

Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, said Crist's openness toward claims bills and the publicity surrounding the Martin Lee Anderson case, along with new leadership, helped clear a path for other claims to be successfully heard.

"The philosophy of the last two Senate presidents and House speakers was that they didn't want to entertain any claims bills," Lawson said.

Anderson's parents received $5 million in compensation for the death of their 14-year-old son, who died a day after being beaten at the Bay County boot camp by drill instructors in January 2006.

Still, Crotzer's stalled relief and the Legislature's failure to pass a "global" plan to pay freed inmates $50,000 a year for lost time when they are proved innocent is an ongoing frustration.

In the last week of session, Sen. Majority Leader Daniel Webster, a Winter Garden Republican and proponent of the global plan, said he didn't know why it died in session.

"It passed every committee but got stalled in criminal and civil justice appropriations," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, sponsor of the global bill. "I don't know why."

By some accounts, the claims bills policy has been stagnated with politics or opinions about how state money should be used, and the result is too many claims that deserve to be heard are being ignored.

Some former lawmakers say the system used to be more fair in years past, and less political.

"I like the way we did it because politics weren't involved," said two-time former Florida House Speaker Donald Tucker, who designed Florida's claims bill process in the late 1960s.

Today, getting a claims bill passed requires a savvy lobbyist, a high-profile claim, lawmakers (in both chambers) willing to go to bat for settlement and a lot of patience.

Having all those elements come together at once isn't easy.

In 1969, Tucker was asked by then-House Speaker Fred Schultz to craft a claims bill process, one that left out politics.

At the time claims bills were voted on by the Legislature without any independent investigations.

Tucker came up with a procedure that required the House to hire an attorney to act as special master, or judge, of a hearing to investigate the claim.

The master then delivered a report to the House.

Tucker said he would chair a committee with three House members, who were not from the area where the claim originated, to hear the claim before a House vote.

"We came up with some good ideas and were fair to people," said Tucker, a Democrat from Tallahassee who served from 1967-78. The Senate eventually adopted the same process.

Now, Tucker looks at how the Legislature handles claims bills, and is disappointed.

"I sit and wonder, what's going on," he said. "These people who were wronged, deserve compensation."

In Crotzer's case, his claims bill passed the House, but stalled in the Senate.

In 2005, when the Dedge bill passed in a December special session, the Senate approved the claims bill (listed as a general bill) unanimously.

This year, when House members attached Crotzer's bill to the Anderson claims bill, Senate leaders — feeling rushed to approve a measure they'd not fully studied — threatened to kill both claims if Crotzer wasn't removed. A bill with only an Anderson settlement passed.

Senate President Ken Pruitt, who supported the Anderson claims bill, said he had his chamber take up another state claims bill for Minouche Noel because it was a priority for the House. Noel received $8.5 million from a malpractice judgment after a botched spinal surgery at a state clinic left her paralyzed.

Meanwhile Crotzer, while he waits for another opportunity to get a state settlement, tries to rebuild his life.

"The biggest problem I have is finding a job," said Crotzer, who has moved to Tallahassee from St. Petersburg. "The only thing I have to bring to the table is that I was wrongly convicted, and survived it."

Tucker hopes legislators give the claims bill process another look.

"Our system isn't perfect," he said. "We can't restore the time, life ... but we can make a compensation monetarily."

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