Then-Florida Governor Charlie Crist speaks with Alan Crotzer in 2008, after they met to discuss the passing of a bill that would pay Crotzer $1.25 million to compensate him for 24 years of wrongful imprisonment. Photo courtesy the Tallahassee Democrat
(Tallahassee.com) -- Alan Crotzer still wants to help kids, even if it is from behind a locked door at the Leon County Jail.
It can get quiet in Pod H, quiet enough where you can hear everything, Crotzer said in an interview at the jail with the our news partners at the Tallahassee Democrat. A couple of weeks ago, he overheard that two boys who'd misbehaved in school were coming to tour the jail. Crotzer asked if he could speak with them. The jail obliged, allowing him to talk with the boys from the other side of his door in Cell 23.
"I said, 'You love your mama? Why are you gonna do her like that?' I said, 'Listen, if you love your mama, do her right.' "
Crotzer told the boys people care about him, that he cares about them. It's a message he's delivered to young people across Florida, many growing up on the same tough streets he did.
"Don't ever get in my situation," he said. "Love your parents. Make them proud. I just want them to know that this is real."
Crotzer, 51, has spent most of his life behind bars, including nearly 25 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit. Now, he's in jail again, facing attempted-murder charges in connection with a shooting between two cars driving down Apalachee Parkway on a Sunday evening in the pouring rain.
Photo Gallery: Man back in jail after being freed for crimes he didn't commit
The man described by police and prosecutors as the victim in the case, Antoine Davis, says Crotzer followed him from the Best Buy parking lot on July 29 in his Dodge Avenger, pulled alongside him and opened fire, striking Davis twice, in the leg and arm.
Crotzer was arrested the next day at the office of his attorney, Thomas L. Powell of Tallahassee. On Powell's advice, Crotzer invoked his right to remain silent. His side of the story hadn't been told publicly until earlier this month, when Powell filed court documents saying Davis fired first and Crotzer fired back only to defend himself.
Powell wants the case against Crotzer thrown out under Florida's controversial stand your ground law, which allows citizens to meet force with force, including deadly force.
Before his arrest in July, Crotzer had big plans and even bigger dreams.
He was busy setting up a nonprofit to help turn around lives of at-risk youth. The Dorothy Crotzer Foundation Inc., named in honor of his late mother, was registered with the state only a couple of weeks before the shooting. He'd also re-enrolled at Tallahassee Community College, he said, where he hopes to study criminology before possibly pursuing a law degree.
But now, his dreams are on hold and in doubt, his life confined within the cinder-block walls of his 11-by-7-foot cell.
"You can't describe it when someone takes your freedom," he said. "It's indescribable, just as it was when they gave it back to me."
Crotzer asked for and was granted a one-person cell to minimize his contact with other inmates, whom he feared would go to prosecutors with made-up stories or confessions to minimize their own legal problems.
"Jailhouse snitches are the second-biggest cause of wrongful conviction in this country," he said. "So therefore there will be no one in that cell but me and God."
Crotzer is allowed out of his cell for one hour three times a week. During his time out, he can use the telephone or take a shower. He gets 200 minutes a week to visit with family and friends, separated by a thick glass window.
"I haven't seen the sunlight in over four months," he said.
Crotzer, a voracious reader, gets a steady stream of books delivered. Recently, he said he finished books by Brad Meltzer and Sister Souljah. He still suffers from insomnia and post traumatic stress syndrome, a condition he says is common among exonerees.
"I'm up in the morning before 4 o'clock," he said. "Then I read. I might walk around the cell from the window to the door back and forth. Then I might write a letter. I just sit there and meditate, try to keep myself calm. There's nothing to do."
"Boredom is like your No. 1 enemy. That's why I read a lot - to feed my mind and make myself think."
Lt. James McQuaig, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said Crotzer has not given jail personnel any trouble.
"Crotzer, according to all of our documentation, has been a model inmate," he said.
The wrong man
Crotzer, who grew up on the south side of St. Petersburg, dropped out of school in the ninth grade and had his first major scrape with the law a few years later. When he was 18, he was sentenced to two years in prison for stealing a case of beer from a convenience store.
Soon, he'd be in far more serious trouble.
On July 8, 1981, three men, one armed with a sawed-off shotgun, forced their way into a Tampa residence, robbed a group of five people and kidnapped a woman and a 12-year-old girl, taking them to a wooded area, raping them and leaving them tied to trees. The two rape victims later identified Crotzer as the man who carried the shotgun and assaulted them both. He and two brothers were charged in the attack.
Crotzer maintained his innocence, testifying he'd been with his girlfriend and members of her family the night of the crime. But jurors, relying on the photo identification and expert testimony that hairs recovered from a rape kit could have come from Crotzer, convicted him on charges of sexual battery, kidnapping, robbery and other charges. He was sentenced to 130 years in prison.
By the late 1980s, Crotzer was writing the NAACP, the ACLU, lawyers, preachers and anyone else who might listen. In 2000, he contacted the Innocence Project based in New York, which began helping him.
A few years later, five microscopic slides containing DNA from the victims and the man who committed the rapes were located at a Tampa lab. After years of testing, the DNA evidence showed Crotzer could not have been the perpetrator.
In 2006, a judge freed Crotzer. In 2008, the Florida Legislature awarded him $1.25 million, including a lump-sum payment of $250,000 and $6,700 a month for 20 years.
'My whole world was gone'
Adjusting to freedom and modern life wasn't easy. Crotzer was unfamiliar with cell phones, motion-sensor bathroom faucets and other new technology. More than that, the life he'd known before no longer existed.
He couldn't turn to loved ones, some of whom were struggling with drug abuse, he said. His mother had died in 2001.
"My whole world was gone," he said. "Everyone I ever knew of was either dead, in jail or on drugs. I knew this was a challenge, but I prayed to God that he would walk with me. And he did."
Crotzer married a woman with two teenage children in 2007, and they moved to Tallahassee, where he hoped to start a new life and continue his fight for compensation from the state. A few months after the wedding, the children's biological father was killed in a drug deal, Crotzer said. His marriage began to falter.
"After close to two years, (the marriage) just fell apart," he said.
With the help of then-Gov. Charlie Crist's office, he said, he got a part-time job at the Department of Juvenile Justice, where he took part in outreach programs across the state for DJJ youth starting in June 2008.
"I've been all over the state of Florida," he said. "It's my thing. I always tell the kids, 'Whatever I've done, you can do it, too, or do it better.' "
An in-demand speaker, he's given talks at high schools, universities, churches and community centers. In 2009, he testified before the Congressional House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security on the need for more public-defender support.
He got positive evaluations at DJJ. One Christmas, he bought 32 stuffed animals for children in need and helped put together and deliver gift bags, according to one evaluation.
But on Sept. 8, 2010, Crotzer had another run-in with police. He was arrested in St. Petersburg and accused of having sex in his Dodge Avenger with a woman suspected of being a prostitute. Prosecutors declined to file charges, and the case was dismissed.
Three days after the arrest, Crotzer resigned from his job at DJJ. Mark Schlakman, a Tallahassee attorney who has worked with Crotzer over the years, said Crotzer told him DJJ officials asked him to resign or be fired.
'Couldn't say no'
Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, said exonerees often struggle when they're released from prison. They're often wrongfully convicted at a young age and grow up in prison, losing the chance to develop as normal people.
"For some guys, that struggle manifests in alcohol or drug use," Miller said. "For other guys, it manifests in being unemployed and depressed. So depending on the situation, a person could be more vulnerable to finding themselves in a situation where they're interacting with law enforcement."
After he won compensation from the state, Crotzer bought a condo in Tallahassee. He was contacted by people he hadn't heard from in years, who'd never bothered to write when he was in prison.
"Between the bad marriage and trying to help people, I gave away a lot of my money," he said. "I just couldn't say no."
He said he got his spending under control. He shops at dollar stores now and is uninterested in extravagant spending, Powell said.
Crotzer was looking for a discount on tires in Thomasville, Ga., the day police obtained a warrant for his arrest.
'The guy has been on TV'
At 6:13 p.m. on July 29, Tallahassee police responded to a 911 call from someone on Howard Avenue. The caller said her friend, Antoine Davis, had just pulled up and was injured from a shooting.
"There're a lot of holes in the car, but he's made it to my house," she said. "He's talking. He's responsive. He's just sitting in the car. He doesn't want us to move him from the car."
The dispatcher asked whether Davis knew who shot him.
"He said he doesn't know the guy's name," the caller said, "but the guy has been on TV. He was accused for a wrongful charge and got out. There was a big news case that came on. That's all he knows about him."
In video from a TPD squad car, Davis and officers can be heard talking. He tells officers he was going to Best Buy when the shooting happened.
One of the officers later tells another, "He said (the suspect) pulled up to him on Apalachee Parkway and rolled the window down and just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom."
Davis, 33, who has a history of arrests on charges of drug possession, battery and violation of probation, was taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds to his left arm and leg.
He told officers that about four months earlier, he was selling CDs in the parking lot of Harvey's on South Adams Street when a man and a woman, later identified as Crotzer and his fiancee, approached. Crotzer wanted to buy a CD, but the woman said he shouldn't, that Davis had hit on her before and that she didn't like him, Davis told police.
Davis said Crotzer returned later and explained that he'd been in prison for more than 20 years on false charges but now was free.
"The male went on to tell Davis he was not going to let him disrespect him or his girlfriend," one of the responding officers wrote in an incident report. "Davis told me the male then pulled out two different handguns. He waved the guns in front of Davis telling him if he did not leave his girlfriend alone he would not have any problem using them on him."
Though he wouldn't elaborate, Powell said Crotzer has a different account of what happened at the south-side shopping center.
Davis told police he'd stopped at Best Buy the day of the shooting and was returning to his 1986 Chrysler Fifth Avenue when he saw a black Dodge Durango pull into the parking lot. He recognized the car, which had a vanity tag "RIKA," as Crotzer's girlfriend's vehicle. Davis got in his car and started to drive away when he spotted Crotzer's Dodge Avenger enter the parking lot, he told investigators.
Frightened, Davis took off and headed for the parkway. The Avenger followed, he told police. As they headed west on the parkway toward the Capitol, Davis told police Crotzer rolled down the front passenger window and made eye contact before opening fire.
"Davis informed me he heard the first shot then the second shot hit his window and that is when he felt his left bicep burning in pain," the TPD incident report states. "Davis told me he kept driving but tried to make himself small and leaned over to the right into the front passenger seat. When Davis did this he heard more shots going off and then felt the pain in his left buttocks."
Bleeding from the gunshot wounds, Davis said he opted to drive to his friend's house on Howard Avenue.
TPD traced the Durango and Avenger to Crotzer, whose physical description matched that of the suspect's. Investigators assembled a photo lineup of Crotzer and five other men. Davis identified Crotzer immediately, officers wrote in a probable-cause affidavit.
"As I started to set the folder down in front of him, the victim pointed to Crotzer's photo while the folder was still in my hands and exclaimed, 'That's him, that's the guy that shot me!' He further said there was not a doubt in his mind that this was the shooter," the officer wrote. "I asked what he thought the suspect was trying to do to him. The victim said, 'He was trying to kill me!' "
'Rush to judgment'
David Menschel, a New York attorney who represented Crotzer during his exoneration, said his friend and former client should be considered innocent until proven guilty.
"The first time when charges were brought against Al in 1981, there was this sort of rush to judgment, where as soon as the charges were brought, people in the legal system assumed he was guilty," Menschel said. "In America, that's not the way it's supposed to work. So I'm going to wait until there's a trial before I start deciding what the facts are. And I think everybody would be wise to do that."
Sam Roberts, a New York City public defender who worked for Crotzer during his exoneration as an intern for the Innocence Project, said Crotzer was "doing very productive, important things" after his release from prison.
"I knew him as a thoughtful and considerate person who actually made something out of his horrendous, hellish experience of 24 years of wrongful incarceration," he said.
'Suspicious' bullet hole
There were no witnesses to the shooting, no footage captured by video cameras, according to police reports.
Forensics officers found at least nine bullet holes and at least three projectiles in Davis' Fifth Avenue. They also found a hole inside Davis' car from a bullet "that appeared to enter from within the vehicle and did not exit," which didn't match bullet holes on the outside of the driver's side door, according to police reports.
Davis told police the interior bullet hole was there when he bought the car. He gave police the phone number of a man named "Bill," whom he said coordinated his purchase of the car in 2007, but the phone number wasn't in service, according to police reports. Davis said he never actually met the previous owner and got the title from "Bill."
Police also found a "suspicious" bullet hole inside Crotzer's Avenger, located in the driver's side door. A bullet was found inside the car.
Gunshot residue was found in both cars, on the inside of Crotzer's car on the passenger side door, and on the inside of Davis' car on the driver's side door.
'Irreconcilably different' stories
Powell, Crotzer's attorney, said the bullet hole in Crotzer's car came from Davis, as did the gunshot residue found in Davis' car.
"Davis fired first, and at least one projectile entered Alan's car and left a bullet hole in the driver's side door," Powell said in an interview.
State Attorney Willie Meggs said investigators are looking at the hole found in Crotzer's car.
"That bullet hole in Crotzer's car is in fact being investigated," Meggs said.
Powell said Davis gave police two versions of what happened the day of the shooting, including where he went immediately before the shooting.
"He gave two irreconcilably different descriptions of how things happened," Powell said. "And they're so detailed and so different that they can't be attributed to confusion. And obviously, one of those stories is simply not true."
Last week, Powell filed a motion seeking pretrial release for Crotzer. Powell said he'd hoped to win Crotzer's release from jail by Christmas, but he's not sure that will happen.
Meggs said his office is ready to argue against Powell's request to drop the charges under stand your ground.
"That will be scheduled for a hearing probably sometime after the first of the year," Meggs said. "And we'd be glad to litigate that issue."
'Want to say so much'
For now, Crotzer remains in the jail, praying for his release.
"I want to say so much, but I can't," he said in the interview at the jail. "I feel 100 percent that God is going to show my innocence in this situation. That's my prayer every day."
He said returning to jail "is something I didn't want to happen. Everything I've done since I've been out I've done to never come back to a place like this."
He's certain he'll one day return to his self-described mission, helping kids stay out of trouble and improve themselves.
"I'm not going to give up on them," he said. "I'm not going to give up on me. I'm never going to be the monster some people portray me to be. I never want to be that. It's not who I am."