Proving someone’s innocence is more than just saying, “I’m innocent” and a DNA test. The Innocence Project of Florida helps to unlock the truth.
Thirteen men in Florida have served wrongful convictions ranging five months to 35 years.
As of March 19, there were 289 exonerees throughout the United States. IPF receives about 1200 to 1500 letters a year from people trying to prove their innocence, but only 1 percent can be accepted.
James Bain served 35 years, the longest sentence. He was convicted in 1974 for rape, breaking and entering, and kidnapping. He wasn’t freed until Dec. 17, 2009, after a post-conviction DNA test proved his innocence.
Bain, along with 11 others, was fortunate to see his freedom. Frank Lee Smith, the first to be freed in Florida, died shortly before his release date.
The path to freedom and utilizing the services offered can be a lot to cope with.
“It’s a process and some of them can pick it up quickly, and some can’t, and they need some extra help,” said Amy Kochanasz, intake coordinator at IPF.
Director of Social Services Anthony Scott works with individuals before and after they have been exonerated for as long as they need.
Scott helps get their rights reinstated, obtain copies of their birth certificates, develop job skills and secure a residence and clothing.
He also explains their work gap, which can be a tedious process.
Counselors are offered because some experience post-traumatic stress, resentment and anger.
“They’re just so thankful to be out and to participate in society again,” said Kochanasz. “It’s really inspiring that they focus on all the positive things that they have in their life. “They try not to dwell too much on what they missed out on.”
Alan Crotzer spent 24 years, six months, thirteen days and four hours wrongfully convicted. In 1981 he was charged with rape, kidnapping and robbery.
He was released from prison on Jan. 23, 2006, and now lives in Tallahassee. He occasionally speaks to raise awareness of people who are wrongfully convicted. Crotzer is disappointed by the justice system.
“I’m against anything that’s not right through the justice system,” said Crotzer. “They need to change it, and these legislators, that run this state, they really need to tighten up because it’s horrible and they never really seem to get it until it hits home within their family and friends.”
Crotzer was 21 years old when he went to prison. In court, he didn’t believe he would be convicted because he didn’t fit the description of the suspect, who was described as 6’10”, light skinned and 200 pounds. Crotzer was 5’4″, dark skinned and 145 pounds.
“You didn’t get a fair trial. That’s not how the system works,” Crotzer said.
While in prison, Crotzer lost his mother. He said he’s not angry, but disappointed with the system.
IPF screens and investigates cases in which innocent claims have been generated. They also secure DNA testing if biological evidence exists.
The most common error of false imprisonment is eyewitness misidentification. Eyewitnesses may feel obligated to identify a suspect and may choose the wrong person. IPF said police officers administering the line up are not aware of whom the suspect is.
Mental illness can also lead to false confessions. Police may use intimidating tactics that can lead a person to confess to crimes they did not commit. Details of the crime can intertwine while a suspect is questioned. Once the suspect gains knowledge of the details police use it against them as evidence of guilt. During questioning, police often make off camera threats or promises.
Improper storage of evidence often leads to it being destroyed or contaminated.
IPF said evidence should be properly maintained for the duration of the defendant’s imprisonment.
President George W. Bush signed the Justice For All Act in 2004, which requires states seeking federal funding for crime labs to conduct independent external investigations into contentions of negligence or misconduct affecting forensic results.
Both Bain and Crotzer have been compensated. The majority of exonerees, however, have not received compensation.
Those with previous criminal records may not be eligible to receive compensation, despite doing time.
IPF recommends that all states compensate exonerees immediately, saying they should have a fixed sum for each year they were wrongfully incarcerated.
Congress set the sum at $50,000.
A gala honoring Florida exonerees will be held in Miami April 27.
Jackie Pugh, who is preparing for the event, said Sandy D’Alemberte, the founding board chair of IPF, will be honored. Exonerees will also share their stories. For more information about the Innocence Project of Florida, visit floridainnocence.org.