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Blue Got Alan Crotzer the Green

Ron Roberts
Alan Crotzer and attorney John Blue
The legal motion was typical of the sort submitted by a Florida prison inmate. Handwritten, it was earnest but legally deficient. As was his duty, Judge John Blue denied it — as he did with plenty of motions just like it when he served as chief judge of the 2nd District Court of Appeals from 2001 to 2003.

This particular motion was written by Alan Crotzer, who years later would seek Blue’s help again after his conviction on rape, kidnapping and armed robbery charges was overturned and he was released after serving 24 years.

By the time they finally met in 2006, Blue had retired from the bench and was working as an attorney at Carlton Fields in St. Petersburg. Crotzer had become the latest face of wrongful imprisonment. Convicted in 1982, Crotzer was sentenced to 130 years. DNA evidence led to his exoneration and release in January 2006.

Blue, working pro bono, agreed to help Crotzer seek compensation for the years Crotzer had served in prison — a task that required a special claims bill to be approved by legislators and signed by the governor.

There wasn’t much time between Crotzer’s release and the start of the 2006 legislative session, so little got done that year. Crotzer and Blue didn’t fare much better in 2007. Some legislators told Blue they wouldn’t support the claims bill on principle because the state has “sovereign immunity,” a legal concept that makes the government immune to civil or criminal suits. Other lawmakers were reluctant to give money to Crotzer because he had been convicted of an earlier robbery and had served time in prison from 1979 to 1981.

Because of the opposition, Blue says he didn’t have “a great deal of confidence” that the bill would ever pass.

But he tried again last session, and a shift in strategy helped carry the day. Crotzer’s legal team continued lobbying lawmakers, but this time added more Crotzer to the mix. “I have to give credit to a lot of people, and one of them is Alan Crotzer,” Blue says. “Once we could get legislators to meet him and talk to him, they started to understand. Alan Crotzer sold it himself.”

Crotzer, now 47 and working as a landscaper in Tallahassee, was awarded $1.25 million. When he met with lawmakers, Crotzer says he didn’t focus on the money. “Basically, I would just sit there and try to explain what happened, how I thought I was going to get a fair and impartial trial, but I didn’t,” he says. “The money isn’t going to change things, as far as what happened, but at least now I can try to rebuild my life.”

“Once we could get legislators to meet him and talk to him, they started to understand. Alan Crotzer sold it himself.”

Crotzer’s case has led to some changes in Florida law. During the recent session, apart from approving Crotzer’s claims bill, legislators approved a separate bill that will automatically pay anyone wrongly convicted $50,000 for each year spent in prison. There’s a catch, though, linked directly to Crotzer: The bill has a “clean hands” provision, which states that anyone previously convicted of a felony would not qualify for the automatic payment. Had that law been on the books when Crotzer was released, he wouldn’t have qualified for automatic compensation.

Blue says that law is one of the reasons he calls Crotzer “the unluckiest and luckiest man in the world.” He says Crotzer also benefited from recent law changes that enabled Crotzer to be a candidate for post-conviction DNA testing. In fact, the handwritten motion from Crotzer that Blue rejected years ago involved a request for DNA testing — but the request came before the law changed a few years later. Crotzer didn’t like it much at the time, but he understands why Blue denied the motion.

“Legally, he didn’t have any grounds to give me any relief,” Crotzer says. “But God works in mysterious ways. When I met him, I found Judge John Blue to be a very nice person. He’s nothing like I thought he would be after he denied my motion. He worked real hard and stuck with it. God is good. Judge Blue might not realize it, but God worked through him. Yes he did.”