Florida man exonerated by DNA evidence walks free after 24 years
Published: Monday, January 23, 2006 at 1:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 23, 2006 at 1:17 p.m.
Alan Crotzer stepped into the warm sunlight outside the county judicial building Monday and raised his arms to the sky, celebrating freedom after serving more than 24 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit.
A judge had just ordered the 45-year-old Crotzer freed after DNA testing and other evidence convinced prosecutors that he wasn't involved in the 1981 armed robbery and rapes that led to his 130-year prison sentence.
"It's been a long time coming," said Crotzer, his black hair graying at the temples. "Thank God for this day."
Crotzer walked free more than three years after he wrote to the Innocence Project in New York, and lawyer David Menschel, law student Sam Roberts and the Florida Innocence Initiative began investigating his case.
"Are you ready for what you waited so long to hear?" state Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett said to Crotzer during the brief hearing Monday. "Motion granted - you're a free man."
Members of Crotzer's family and other courtroom spectators clapped and cheered as a bailiff removed shackles from his wrists and ankles.
Prosecutor Mike Sinacore congratulated him afterward.
"Trying to fix an error in the system is just as important as trying to convict someone who is guilty," Sinacore said.
DNA evidence has been used to clear at least 172 people wrongly convicted of crimes in 31 states since 1989, according to the Innocence Project, a legal clinic that seeks to exonerate inmates through DNA testing.
Menschel said the law still makes it difficult to bring forth new evidence to try to prove the innocence of people who are in prison. He thanked Hillsborough prosecutors who were cooperative in allowing the DNA testing and taking into account the new evidence. That isn't always the case, he said.
"I shudder when I think of all the innocent people who haven't been as fortunate as Alan," he said.
Crotzer and brothers Douglas James and Corlenzo James were convicted of robbing a Tampa family in 1981. Douglas James and Crotzer were also convicted of kidnapping and raping a 38-year-old woman and her 12-year-old girl at gunpoint.
A victim picked Crotzer out of a photo lineup. But Douglas James now says Crotzer is innocent. He said he and his brother were the rapists and a childhood friend was their accomplice.
A jury found Crotzer guilty of two counts of sexual assault, armed robbery, burglary, aggravated assault and false imprisonment. The James brothers also got long prison sentences.
Crotzer, who has never held a paying job, said he will go live with a sister in St. Petersburg and try to find work. His attorneys said they will seek compensation from the state for him.
In December, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill allowing Wilton Dedge to receive $2 million in compensation from the Florida Legislature for 22 years he spent in prison for a rape he didn't commit. Dedge, 44, also was exonerated by DNA evidence.
"There ain't no compensation for what they done to me," said Crotzer, whose mother died while he was in prison. "But I'm not bitter."
Crotzer said he was looking forward to an afternoon barbecue with his family who promised him his favorites - pork chops and banana pudding. Then he said he wanted to take a bath in a real bathtub.
"I want to soak," he said. "I want to get some of this off me."
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