Alan Crotzer could not have been the man who, with two others, kidnapped and raped a Tampa mother and child in 1981 then tied the woman to a tree.
That man was 6 feet tall and a light-skinned black man. Crotzer is 5-feet-5 and dark-skinned.Still, a Tampa jury convicted him, and he spent 24 years in prison until DNA proved he was innocent.
"The system is broken. Fix it," he urged Florida's new Innocence Commission, a panel of judges, lawyers and lawmakers created by the Florida Supreme Court to study wrongful convictions and how to prevent them in the future. "Y'all can do big things. Make it happen. Make it better."
So far, post-conviction DNA testing has proved a dozen people -- all of them men -- were innocent after they spent years, many of them decades, in Florida prisons.
James Bain was freed in December after serving 35 years for a Polk County rape that he did not commit.
Bain, now 55, told the panel Friday that he was prosecuted because the victim, a 9-year-old boy, was pressured by family members and police to pick him out of a photo lineup. The child never got a good look at the man who raped him facedown on a baseball field, Bain said.
At the time, Bain lived with his family near Lake Wales, about two miles from the victim. Their families knew each other.
"I like what they're doing there," Bain said outside the commission room. "We're looking for a change."
Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady opened the meeting, telling the 23-member panel its job is an important one.
"It's a difficult task," he said. "The issues are complex."
So are the dynamics among panel members. The commission includes public officials who fight to put people in prison, such as Gerald Bailey, head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement; State Attorney Brad King of Lake and four other counties; and Florida Assistant Attorney General Carolyn Snurkowski. It also includes people who have fought to free the innocent, including Tampa attorney Sylvia Walbolt and Assistant Public Defender Nancy Daniels of Tallahassee.
Almost immediately, panel members started bickering about the most basic issue -- and one they're not even charged with deciding: whether the 12 men freed by new DNA evidence were truly innocent.
Perhaps, King said, they had only won new trials but gone free because prosecutors had opted not to retry them.
Commission Chairman Belvin Perry Jr., chief judge of Orange and Osceola counties, let panel members hash through their disagreement -- they eventually voted to sidestep it by killing a sentence in their mission statement -- but later urged them to stop being territorial.
It's a terrible thing, he said, to be locked in a cell night after night, year after year, to know that you've been wrongfully convicted and to cry out for help, yet no one hears you.
Focus, he said, on the big picture: "We're all looking at the one thing: justice."
"My hope is that we eliminate mistakes and make sure the one who committed the crime is the one who does the time," Perry said.
The panel member with the most unique set of credentials is state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, and he let other commission members know it. He was convicted in 2006 of stealing $9,000 in state funds -- making three state employees do campaign work on state time. He was placed on probation, but an appeals court reversed his conviction.
During the meeting, Siplin proclaimed himself the victim of a criminal-justice system that knowingly wronged him and wronged him at every turn: arrest, prosecution and sentencing.
Some wrongful convictions, he said, "are intentional. Mine was."
Also on the panel from Central Florida is the chief judge in Brevard-Seminole, Preston Silvernail.
The panel has two years to come up with proposed fixes, but two powerful legislators on the commission, state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, urged members to act immediately on any obvious fixes.
If lawmakers must rewrite statutes, they said, that could wind up taking years to implement.
"I hope this commission does great things," Crotzer said. "Let's get it right. There are other James Bainses, Alan Crotzers out there. . . ."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun