Wrongly imprisoned for nearly a quarter of a century, Alan J. Crotzer is one of the justice system’s best-known victims.
The former St. Petersburg resident received a $1.25 million settlement from the state in 2008 and inspired legislation to make it easier for the wrongfully convicted to collect compensation. He serves on the board of the Innocence Project of Florida. He mentors boys who are at risk of getting into trouble. He advocates for restoring voting rights to released felons.
All of which makes the events of Sunday the more inexplicable and, potentially, tragic.
Tallahassee police arrested Crotzer on an attempted murder charge after they say he shot into a car he was driving alongside, wounding Antoine Davis in his arm and leg.
According to police, the men had been arguing over a CD.
Davis told police Crotzer threatened him a couple of months ago after they had an argument over a CD he sold Davis’ girlfriend. Davis said he saw Crotzer’s car Sunday when he was leaving a Best Buy store.
Crotzer pulled up to him and fired through an open passenger window while both cars were going about 40 mph, police said. Police found Crotzer based on a description of his car, and he was arrested Monday after Davis picked him out of a police lineup.
Crotzer, 51, was held without bail in Leon County. His attorney, Thomas Powell, said the accusations are “bizarre” and “inconsistent.” He plans to file a plea of not guilty.
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, was one of Crotzer’s biggest advocates in the Legislature.
“We don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know what anybody’s going to do in the future,” she said. “I’m not rushing to judgment on this until something is proven that he actually committed a crime.”
Mark Schlakman, chairman of the board of directors of the Innocence Project of Florida, said he last saw Crotzer in early July at a forum on the restoration of voting rights for released felons.
Crotzer served alongside seasoned lawyers on the panel and spoke with eloquence, he said.
“He strikes me as a remarkable person,” said Schlakman. “Clearly, the news of this set of circumstances was shocking.”
In 1982, a jury found Crotzer and another man guilty of robbing a Tampa family, then raping a 38-year-old woman and a 12-year-old girl and leaving them bound to a tree in an empty field in eastern Hillsborough County. The woman had picked Crotzer’s face from a photo line-up.
He received a 130-year prison sentence, but insisted all along he was innocent.
In 2002, the Innocence Project in New York began investigating his case, leading eventually to new DNA testing that showed Crotzer was not the rapist. One of the other convicted men also acknowledged that Crotzer was never at the scene of the crime.
In 2006, Hillsborough Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett tossed the conviction and freed Crotzer.
That day, Crotzer and his defense team stood in front of a bank of cameras at a Tampa press conference. “It’s been a long time coming,” Crotzer told reporters. “I thank God for this day.”
The cameras, and crowd, trailed behind him as he left for a cook-out celebration at a home in St. Petersburg. He sat under a live oak, trying to eat pork chops and banana pudding while a German television reporter thrust a microphone and asked how the chops tasted.
He got a job working an overnight shift as a janitor at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. People recognized him. They wanted to touch him. An elderly lady slapped him on the forehead and told him to be good.
“It’s like they’re giving me some of their spirit,” he said then. “They’re giving me some goodness.”
Crotzer eventually left St. Petersburg for Tallahassee.
He didn’t keep a pristine record. In 2010, St. Petersburg police arrested Crotzer, saying he had sex with a prostitute. Crotzer told officers he was on his way home to Tallahassee from Miami and had stopped in St. Petersburg to see people he knew. He denied that he and the woman exchanged money. The case was later dropped.
The terms of Crotzer’s $1.25 million settlement included a $250,000 lump sum payment and $6,700 a month for 20 years. In signing the law, then-Gov. Charlie Crist said: “To be wrongly accused, wrongly convicted and wrongly imprisoned is unimaginable.”
Crotzer’s claim won overwhelming bipartisan support in the Legislature, passing the House, 116-0, and the Senate, 33-5. The House speaker at the time was Republican Marco Rubio of Miami, now Florida’s junior U.S. Senator.
Joyner said his new arrest does not change the facts of Crotzer’s past.
“He was awarded that money by the Legislature for a crime that he didn’t commit, and it had great bipartisan support,” Joyner said. “We all felt he should have been compensated for having been wrongfully incarcerated.”
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who is expected to become Senate president in November, said it was important to withhold judgment until the facts of Crotzer’s most recent case are known.
“Mr. Crotzer has been arrested. He hasn’t been tried or been given the opportunity to present his case,” Gaetz said. “I don’t think that a comment by a politician would necessarily be appropriate in the middle of a criminal proceeding.”
Gaetz was one of the five senators who voted against Crotzer’s settlement.
“My vote against the claims bill was not because I had a gift of prophecy of what this guy might do,” Gaetz said. “I have some problems with the claims bill process and the fact that claims bills are often approved based on how hot the biscuits were that morning or who the lobbyist is or how the emotions are running.”
The Associated Press and Tampa Bay Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted the state settlement paid to the wrongfully convicted Alan Jerome Crotzer. His settlement includes monthly payments of $6,700.