Behind Bars

Life After Wrongful Conviction

By Olympia Duhart

At the age of 48, Alan J. Crotzer has spent more than half of his life behind bars: 24 years, six months, 13 days and four hours, to be precise.

The Tallahassee man was only 20 years old when he was convicted of several charges in 1982 by a Florida jury in connection with a double kidnapping and rape. When he was finally released in 2006, he was 45 years old. The prime of his life was spent behind the bars of a Florida state prison.

And he was innocent of every single charge leveled against him.

Facing a 130-year sentence, Crotzer was released after DNA collected at the scene showed that he could not have committed the crimes. From the very beginning of the ordeal, and throughout every step of the process, Crotzer always insisted on his innocence. On January 23, 2006 Crotzer’s conviction was overturned and he was released. “I finally thought I had my life back,” Crotzer says of his release.

But life after exoneration is filled with its own special set of hardships. Without education, life skills and the financial security that more than two decades in the workforce would have provided, Crotzer was at a marked disadvantage. Florida, at the time, was one of almost two-dozen states that had no law governing compensation claims for wrongfully convicted people. Instead, the state handled such claims on a case-by-case basis. After more than two years of pleading his case to anyone who would listen, Crotzer received compensation from the Florida legislature last year that allowed him to start the process of reclaiming his life. He considers himself one of the luckier ones.

Crotzer’s grueling quest for well-deserved compensation is emblematic of the ordeal facing exonerees beyond the prison walls. Though science has been able to set innocent people free, the law has often failed them. At least ten people have been cleared in Florida through the use of DNA. Crotzer is one of only three in the state who have been compensated for their wrongful convictions. Nationally, more than 241 people have been exonerated through post-conviction relief efforts, according to the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization. Most have not been compensated.

Over the past several years, 27 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that provide some compensation to the wrongfully convicted. However, there is little uniformity among the packages. Many provide only marginal relief. New Hampshire, for example, caps compensation at $20,000 for the entirety of the wrongful incarceration. More than a dozen states still have no compensation packages in place for exonerees. Nothing at all.

Following his release from prison, it took Crotzer three attempts at the Florida legislature before he received aid through a special claims bill. By all accounts, Crotzer is a gifted speaker. He’s held court with law school students, mesmerized large community audiences and kept up with high-powered lawmakers. This past June, Crotzer testified in front of the Congressional House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security about the challenges facing indigent defendants. He’s been dubbed by some as a virtual “poster boy” for exonerees because of his easy smile and compelling narrative. But even Crotzer had a tough road to receiving any compensation for his wrongful incarceration.

Under Florida law, the state has sovereign immunity that shields it from lawsuits. A statutory waiver requires victims of governmental civil wrongs to obtain legislative approval for any payout in excess of $200,000 per incident. For the exonerated, that means convincing a state legislature to sponsor a special claims bill just for them. Unfortunately, such claims often fall between the cracks in the budget or bureaucracy. Other projects get priority. Lawmakers are often reluctant to take up the cause of compensating a former inmate—even one unequivocally exonerated by hard science. Further, the legislative process is a red-tape road almost impossible to navigate.

Crotzer was a regular in Tallahassee during the years it took him to obtain $1.25 million in compensation. His work to receive some relief became a full-time job; the native of St. Petersburg, Florida had to relocate to Tallahassee to better access lawmakers. And despite the price tag, the work for Crotzer was far from easy or fully remunerative. The special claims bill—and all of its accompanying pleas, both public and private—took its toll on this naturally intelligent and affable man.

“I literally begged all three sessions to get compensated,” Crotzer recalls. “To go through what I went through is an emotional roller coaster. To hear these people talk about the worst part of my life [in session] was like going through hell all over again.”

Even when they are awarded, special claims bills are uneven and inadequate. The financial compensation varies among claimants, even within the same state. Some offer money and no social services. Some offer education credits. Few offer job training. Healthcare is often overlooked. In order to effectively address these issues, all states should adopt a uniform compensation law that offers a wide-sweeping package to victims of wrongful incarcerations. A uniform law would go a long way to ease the transition for new exonerees. Unlike Crotzer, there would be no need for someone who has already lost years of his or her life to waste even more time seeking compensation. More importantly, it could also set in place comprehensive relief efforts to help repair all of the losses suffered during a wrongful incarceration. Most advocates for exoneree rights agree that more than money is needed.

“What is needed is a more comprehensive plan that addresses all of their needs,” says Dean Catherine Arcabascio, co-founder of the Florida Innocence Project and a long-time advocate for DNA testing and compensation. “A good package will include—among other things—money, social services and education. In addition, having a uniform law will provide a straightforward process for individuals who already have been wronged by the system.”

States should also eliminate the so-called “clean hands” provision Florida and other states have inserted in their compensation packages. Under some compensation plans, exonerees who have a prior, non-related felony conviction are exempt from all compensation for their wrongful incarceration. While it may be appealing to limit state dollars to those who have done no wrong, the “clean hands” provisions are problematic for several reasons. First, people swept up in wrongful convictions are often on the police radar for a reason—many have done something wrong that landed them in a police line-up. Additionally, it is patently unfair to punish the wrongfully incarcerated for an unrelated wrong. Had Florida’s clean-hands provision been in place when Crotzer was compensated, for instance, the robbery charge he faced at the age of 18 would have disallowed the compensation for the 24-and-a-half years he spent in prison as an innocent man. A relief package that excludes the very people it is intended to aid does no good.

Finally compensated, Crotzer has purchased a home and now works with at-risk youth as an Interventional Specialist at the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and with the Innocence Project of Florida. These days, he’s most excited about starting classes at Tallahassee Community College in the fall—a benefit of the tuition waiver awarded under his compensation package.

“I want to be self-sufficient,” he said. “I want to start living my life.”

It’s about time.

Olympia Duhart is an Associate Professor of Law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, where she teaches Constitutional Law, Women and the Law and Lawyering Skills and Values. She has also worked on post-conviction DNA exoneration cases., August 13. 2009