Bill to Help Wrongly Accused Weakened

By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida
By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 13, 2011 -

Alan Crotzer spent 24 years, six months, thirteen days, and four hours in a Florida prison for a terrible crime – that he did not commit.

The St. Petersburg man was convicted of raping two women based on faulty eyewitness testimony and was released in 2006 based on DNA evidence. He has since turned into an advocate for the wrongfully accused and traveled to the Capitol on Tuesday to urge Florida lawmakers to not change a bill (HB 821) that would require law enforcement agencies to establish stricter standards for photo and eyewitness lineups.

“I spent more than half of my life wrongly convicted,” said 50-year-old Crotzer. “I lost everything…I have a lot of respect for law enforcement agencies here today, but you need some rules. You got it wrong and you’ve been getting it wrong for a long time now.” Of the 13 Florida prisoners released based on DNA evidence, 10 were convicted based in part on faulty eyewitness identification, according to the Innocence Project of Florida.

But Crotzer’s pleas were rebuffed by the House Judiciary Committee, which voted 17-1 for the watered down bill. One member of the panel, Rep. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, initially voted no, but changed her vote afterward to the 17th yes.

The bill was weakened Tuesday by an amendment that removes a requirement to have an eyewitness sign a piece of paper indicating they had been given neutral instructions and were not pressured to pick anyone.

“I’m not a politician, but I know it’s wrong what you’re doing today,” Crotzer said, at times turning around to face police and sheriff’s officers in attendance and staring pointedly at them.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, was intended to establish stricter guidelines for law enforcement agencies to follow when administering photo or in-person lineups to reduce wrongful convictions.

The bill originally required law enforcement officers with no knowledge of who the suspect actually is to administer lineups – a so-called “blind” administrator. But the bill was changed at its last committee stop to allow law enforcement agencies to instead use photos randomized by a computer or printed photos that have been shuffled.

But the bill would have also required whomever administers the lineup to provide disclaimers to ensure the eyewitness doesn’t feel pressured to pick a particular person and have the witness sign a piece of paper acknowledging they received these disclaimers. There were also ramifications for not following this protocol. A jury or judge could take into consideration whether that eyewitness is reliable.

The amended bill now only requires law enforcement agencies to establish written policies and procedures for eyewitness identification and generally follow guidelines that include instructions that the witness does not have to identify anyone and that the right person may not be in the lineup.

This concession was met with approval from law enforcement agencies, which uniformly supported the bill.

Jim Coats, the head of the Florida Sheriff’s Association and the Pinellas County Sheriff, said law enforcement officials won’t escape a duty to establish stricter standards under the amended House bill.

“Law enforcement does not want to put innocent people in jail,” Coats said. “Law enforcement does not want to arrest innocent people.” At previous committee stops, law enforcement groups described the bill as too onerous.

After the vote to approve the bill, an angry Crotzer left the committee with tears in his eyes.

“The changes are substantial, and really, they were made because it would either be that or nothing,” Thurston said after the committee. “It wasn’t going to pass if we didn’t change it.”

Thurston said in order for the bill to be considered in the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, insisted on those changes. Snyder is the committee chairman.

Thurston said he’s hopeful there will be an opportunity later in the process to “put some teeth back into it.”

The House bill is now substantially different from the Senate version (SB 1206). The Senate proposal has stayed true to the originally filed House version, with the independent administrator, specific instructions given to eyewitnesses, and the required form signed by the witness saying they weren’t pressured to pick anyone.

That version is sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who was a member of the Florida Innocence Commission, which conducted hearings on wrongful convictions.


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