« Opposition mounts against tax cap on commercial property | Main | Planned Parenthood supporters descend on Tallahassee »

Wrongfully convicted man scolds House lawmakers, cops

Al Crotzer, who spent more than 24 years in prison for rapes he didn’t commit, scolded police and Florida House lawmakers Tuesday for changing a bill designed to reform eyewitness identification.

“This is very personal to me. I spent more than half of my life wrongly convicted,” Crotzer said.

Turning away from the microphone at the House Judiciary Committee, he glared at the uniformed law-enforcement officers and lobbyists representing police chiefs and sheriffs, who lobbied to remove some of the requirements in the legislation, HB 821

“You need some rules and regulations. You got it wrong. You’ve been getting it wrong for a long time,” Crotzer said.

The 4-page bill called on law-enforcement agencies to use neutral officers to administer line-ups or photo-lineups so that potential witnesses aren’t subtly led or pressured to identify the wrong suspect.

But law-enforcement officials – a far more powerful lobby in Tallahassee than Crotzer and justice-reform groups -- successfully argued against parts of the bill, specifically a provision that would call for an "independent admnistrator" to oversee lineups. If an independent administrator wasn't used, the original bill called on a state commission to craft a "carefully structured" process to ensure neutrality.

They law-enforcement lobby, though, said the Legislature shouldn’t tell police how to do their jobs. They successfully pushed for replacement legislation that would require each law-enforcement agency to establish their own standards.

Jim Coats, the Pinellas County sheriff and head of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, said the standards would still focus "on neutrality and impartiality in the line-up process.”

“Law enforcement does not want to put innocent people in jail,” Coats said. “Law enforcement does not want to arrest innocent people.”

 But it happens. And innocent people have been incarcerated, said former FBI agent Robert Cromwell, who testified Tuesday.

In Florida, he said, 10 of the 13 wrongfully incarcerated people were convicted due to witness misidentification. Nationwide, 75 percent of the 269 wrongfully incarcerated people were convicted largely due to witness misidentification.

“When you look at the time between the wrongfully convicted person and the time the ultimate suspect is arrested, there were over 20 homicides and 60 rapes by those people,” he testified.

“When you convict somebody through misidentification, the investigation stops and the actual criminal is still on the street,” Cromwell said.

The Florida Innocence Commission, a 24-member panel of lawmakers, judges and lawyers, recommended the legislation that Cromwell and Crotzer supported.

One commission member, Republican Rep. William Snyder of Stuart, chairs the Judiciary Committee. But he said the original legislation wouldn’t have passed on the conservative-leaning committee.

So the bill sponsor, Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, agreed to change it. His fellow Democrats opposed the move – an irony considering that Thurston is set to lead House Democrats next year. Ultimately, nearly all of the Democrats joined Republicans in the 17-1 approval of the legislation.

Thurston said he hoped that the other commission member, Republican Sen. Joe Negron of Stuart, held firm to the original version of the bill. Senate President Mike Haridopolos is trying to make sure the Innocence Commission maintains its funding, and he’s sponsoring legislation this spring to compensate yet another wrongfully convicted man, William Dillon.

Crotzer, who was awarded $1.25 million in 2008, said he understands the legislative process can be slow. But he doesn’t appreciate it.

 “I ain’t a politician. I don’t have a degree. I know what you’re doing is wrong today. But you can make it right,” he said.

“The person that committed this crime ain’t come to justice yet. One of the people that was victimized – he was a double rapist by the way, a double rapist – was a 12-year-old female. They never solved that crime. I spent half of my life in jail for that. I want some justice now. You can give it to me.”