From Siberia With Love (Oprah, Read This!)

This story is brought to you from Siberia, USA, otherwise known as Florida. It's also known as the Sunshine State, the chain gang state, and the boot camp state where a 14 year-old inmate's death by beating brought down the wrath of New York's Reverend Al Sharpton. This would not be the first time New Yorkers came to the aid of a Florida inmate. In 2002, a couple of idealistic NYC lawyers took up the cause of a wrongfully convicted inmate named Alan Crotzer serving 130 years. In 2006, they won Mr. Crotzer's freedom.

They should build shrines to people like Alan Crotzer, a man who spent more than twenty-four years behind bars for crimes he didn't commit: armed robbery, rape, kidnapping. For nearly twenty-five years, in the state of Florida, he was innocent yet incarcerated, and he continued to assert his innocence from his arrest in 1981 through his trial, and on through all those years in prison. Even his co-defendants stated Mr. Crotzer had nothing to do with them or the crime.

On January 23, 2006, after living more than half his 45 years in the joint, he walked out a free man and declared, "I'm not bitter."

Mr. Crotzer's better-late-than-never release from prison was brought to him by "two Jewish guys from New York City." One was Sam Roberts, then a law student, who learned about Alan Crotzer's case while volunteering at the Innocence Project and showed Mr. Crotzer's letter to David Menschel, who was then a recent Yale law graduate with the Innocence Project in New York City. www.innocenceproject.org

"I wrote everybody asking for help," says Crotzer. "The ACLU, Uhuru movement, Innocence Project..." Finally these two guys felt my pain and helped me. I love both these guys." When the Innocence Project sent Crotzer a letter declining to take his case, Roberts and Menschel left and continued to fight for him, for three and a half years, joined by attorneys Jennifer Greenberg, and Martin McClain, and Jeff Walsh, a private investigator. At the request of Barry Scheck at the New York IP, the Florida Innocence Intitiative was opened, the only IP in the state.

"Sam Roberts is very persistent," says Crotzer from his home in St Petersburg, where this Thursday he'll be interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times.

The story of Alan Crotzer's 130-year sentence began in 1981 with a series of miscarriages of justice that would do a banana republic proud. The judge who sentenced him to 130 years in 1982 was convicted of four counts of judicial misconduct in 1987, including accepting a bribe. See Merckle vs State of Florida 512 So 2d 948,951 Fla. 2d DCA 1987. A jury sentenced Arden Mays Merckle to five years, and unlike Mr. Crotzer, he did the crime and deserved the time.

The victims of the 1981 robbery described the ringleader as being very tall and thin. Mr. Crotzer is 5'5" tall. He had numerous witnesses, including his girlfriend, who testified he was with her and members of her family on the night the crimes were committed. At the request of Florida Innocence Initiative's lawyers the serologist, now in private practice, reviewed forensic work done at trial. He found that he'd made a mistake by signing off on the work of an analyst under his supervision. "The analyst was in error," and according to Jennifer Greenberg, director of the Innocence Intitiative, "they do not know if the error was intentional, but they believe the supervisor did not act maliciously."

The actual leader of the crime spree was a smoker who left a bunch of butts at the crime scene says Mr. Crotzer. He was also a "non-secretor," meaning he leaves no blood typing in saliva or body secretions for evidence. In the words of David Menschel:
"Prior to trial, the FDLE issued a report saying that the biological material on a piece of evidence was consistent with the serological characteristics of a nonsecretor(that is, someone who does not secrete their blood group substances into their saliva and other bodily fluids). The FDLE got the exact same results on another piece of evidence--a cigarette butt smoked by
the ringleader of the crime--and concluded that the results were "inconclusive" rather than concluding that the results suggested the cigarette butt was smoked by a nonsecretor. The inconsistent way that the FDLE characterized the exact same result on two different pieces of evidence is a problem.
More troubling is that HAD (emphasis added)the FDLE characterized the result on the cigarette butt in the same way that it characterized the result on the other piece of evidence, Alan would have been "excluded" as the smoker of the cigarette because he is a secretor, NOT a nonsecretor. This would have been very useful to Alan's defense at trial."

Alan Crotzer calls it the hand of God at work that "FDLE just happened to have a file cabinet with five slides of biological evidence stapled to the back of some papers."

Crotzer's DNA was sent first to Germantown, MD, then to the U.K., where Scotland Yard did a LCN (low carbon number) DNA test on it. Finally it landed in the hands of Edward Blake, director of Forensic Science Associates in California, who gave a partial report to the state of Florida. According to Mr. Crotzer, that report got the case reopened.

The hardest thing for him to bear about his twenty-five years behind bars is the fact that his mother died while he was locked up, and he was not able to attend her funeral. His biggest problems today are "emotional" in nature, he says. "My mother died. She was my staunch supporter through all this. She didn't live to see her son exonerated."

While in prison, he says his main focus was "to keep my sanity...you see so many people die in there." Now that he's free, his struggles continue, in a different vein.

It's a strange new world Alan Crotzer has stepped into. He says his old neighborhood has undergone profound changes, and not always for the better. He decries the young lives wasted on drugs and says: "I'm not used to seeing old people living in fear in their own neighborhoods.
Crack cocaine wasn't around. Computers weren't around. They dropped so many drugs on the ground, grass won't grow. Now, nobody seems to care."

It's hard to wrap your mind around an injustice as gut wrenching as this one. Your mind goes back and back and back, trying to comprehend how this could happen. Back--to the trial where it took an all white jury just an hour to decide he was guilty. Back--to the sound of his anguished mother in that courtroom, watching her son get railroaded; a scene any mother can visualize. Equally hard to fathom is the sheer force of will that must have pushed his lawyers forward through the three and a half years it took to get him out. Digging for the evidence that would free him, like terriers digging up a yard: fearless and relentless. And then you realize: one was a law student, and these guys were all volunteers.

For a man who did hard time, Mr. Crotzer expresses a lot of empathy and compassion for those still inside who like him, were wrongfully convicted. He lavishly praises the legal team that won his freedom, especially Jenny Greenberg of Florida Innocence Initiative. www.floridainnocence.org
He worries about funding for the Innocence Initiative, and says there are others in prison for crimes they didn't commit who need help proving their innocence. Jennifer says the Florida Innocence Initiative, funded in part by the Florida Bar Foundation and private donations, will need to raise $100,000 just to keep going another 12 months.

If ever there was a worthy cause that needs some serious media coverage, it's this one. Oprah: are you reading this? (Please read this!)

Reparations are in order here. Serious compensation is due. Now forty-five years old, Alan Crotzer has lost more than half his life to the Florida state prison system. He is free, but still struggles financially. He is grateful to the woman who provides him with an apartment, for reasonable rent. He is still searching for the job that will pay him a liveable wage and afford him some dignity. He is articulate, intelligent, and compassionate. Who knows what he could have done with his life if he'd been outside the prison walls for the past twenty-five years?

Incredibly, he still has to fight to get his voting rights restored. State officials have the nerve to debate whether Mr. Crotzer should lose his claim to damages because he was arrested as a juvenile-- for which he served his sentence, by the way. What has one crime to do with the other? And why does the state want to punish him twice for the same crime? Like Florida's convicted felons who have done their time, and are forever barred from voting. What part of "double jeopardy" does the state of Florida not understand?

Earlier this year, after speaking to a gathering at the Enoch Davis Community Center where he mentioned his new voter registration card, Mr. Crotzer was contacted by a state official and told to turn in his voting card. To restore his voting rights, he has to apply for clemency from the governor, a process that can be lengthy, although it's more streamlined than it used to be. In Florida, even one felony-- for which all restitution has been made--can take away your right to vote for life.

Even if you can conclude, by some extraordinary mental gymnastic, that what Florida did to Alan Crotzer was an "honest" mistake, thus exonerating the state from compensating him for false imprisonment, he is still owed money. If for nothing else, for his labor. One way or another, prison inmates work, either for the prison itself or for outside corporations contracting inmate labor. Mr. Crotzer worked in a variety of jobs, including in the prison kitchen--and for the last five years as an "impaired assistant"--that is, he helped the inmates who have physical disabilities. Twenty four years of unpaid labor is a lot of back pay, and the interest clock is ticking. How much is a man's life worth in Florida? Twenty-five years of it.

As of this story, Alan Crotzer has a civil case pending and is being represented pro bono by Carlton Fields law firm.

No comments: