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January 29, 2015

George Toca now a free man ... and SCOTUS now lacks a live Miller retroactivity case

This local article from Louisiana, headlined "George Toca, La. inmate at center of debate on juvenile life sentences, to go free," reports on a remarkable turn of events in a case that was supposed to serve as the means for the Supreme Court to address the retroactivity of its Eighth Amendment Miller ruling. Here are the details:

A state prisoner from New Orleans who recently landed at the center of national legal debate about mandatory life sentences for youthful offenders won his freedom Thursday after 31 years in prison. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office agreed to vacate his murder conviction.

George Toca, 47, is set to go free after pleading guilty instead to two counts of attempted armed robbery and one count of manslaughter from a 1984 stickup that ended with his best friend, Eric Batiste, fatally shot outside a convenience store on South Broad Street in Broadmoor.

Toca’s release almost certainly means the U.S. Supreme Court will scrap a scheduled hearing this spring on whether its 2012 decision in a case known as Miller v. Alabama, barring mandatory life sentences for juvenile convicts, is retroactive.  The high court in November took up Toca’s case, above others, to settle an issue that affects about 1,000 convicts in Louisiana and three other states that have refused to apply the court’s ruling to older juvenile lifers.

A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office said the DA will join in a motion with Toca’s attorneys to withdraw the Supreme Court case.

Toca, appearing briefly in court Thursday morning, pleaded guilty to the manslaughter count under an “Alford” plea, meaning he did not admit guilt but conceded that strong evidence could have led to his conviction.  He returned to Angola State Penitentiary for processing, with his release expected late Thursday or Friday.

Newly elected Criminal District Court Judge Byron Williams granted the joint motion in a case that the Innocence Project New Orleans had pursued on Toca’s behalf for more than a decade.  DA’s Office spokesman Christopher Bowman credited a warming relationship with Innocence Project attorneys, along with Toca’s productive years behind bars, for the decision to let him go free on the reduced charges.

Bowman called it “a just outcome,” also citing the vehemence of Batiste’s family in urging Toca’s release and the fact he will remain on parole for another 30 years under the deal. “In light of all those facts, the district attorney believed he was no longer a public safety risk,” Bowman said. “The District Attorney’s Office ... is not afraid to take a look at older cases.”...

Bowman insisted that the DA’s decision to come to a deal on Toca’s release was unrelated to the pending U.S. Supreme Court case, in which Cannizzaro’s office had been gearing up to argue against the retroactive application of Miller v. Alabama.

The high court didn’t ban states from sentencing some young killers to life without parole. But the 5-4 majority opinion insisted that courts must first weigh a defendant’s youth, adding that “we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”  The court said “youth matters for purposes of meting out the law’s most serious punishments,” citing “children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change” when compared with adults.

In legal filings, Cannizzaro’s office argued that it would be a fool’s errand to force local judges, years or decades later, to discern a long-ago juvenile’s capacity for change. Advocates for juvenile lifers argued that the task would be made easier because judges can review an inmate’s record while behind bars.  And they saw Toca’s case as a promising bellwether for what the high court justices might do....

According to the state, 272 Louisiana inmates had been sentenced as juveniles to life without the possibility of parole as of April 2013 — the bulk of them, like Toca, having been sentenced before the U.S. Supreme Court decision.  State Supreme Courts in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota also have found that Miller v. Alabama does not apply retroactively, setting up the fight at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Toca’s vacated conviction and release will leave the issue unresolved for now, said Cara Drinan, an associate professor of law at Catholic University of America.  Still, she expects the Supreme Court to take up the retroactivity question relatively soon in some other case, now that it has signaled its interest in settling the issue.  “For George Toca, this is a victory and a great thing,” Drinan said.  “For those of us looking at the bigger issue, and for the hundreds of people waiting for a resolution, we’ll have to wait.”

January 29, 2015 at 10:55 PM | Permalink


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this right here explains the sudden unexpected release by the state!

"A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office said the DA will join in a motion with Toca’s attorneys to withdraw the Supreme Court case."

now that the ussc is actually considering the case. they suddenly have to back up and release. got to keep this type of shit out of that court.

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 30, 2015 1:19:21 AM

The States should start ignoring the rulings of the Supreme Court. Judicial review has no basis nor is it permitted in the constitution. Indeed, Article I Section 1 allows only the legislature to make law, including the cancellation of laws. The personal feelings of the horrible people on the Supreme Court do not make for good policy. They know nothing about nothing, yet get to decide technical subject and to dictate to the lawyer over saturated public.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 30, 2015 3:14:32 AM

The writ of habeas corpus is in the Constitution, though. In addition, there are statutes that allow the right to appeal to the Supreme Court (in addition to the rules in Article III) and statutory rights of habeas corpus. It seems to me that appellate review of a criminal conviction is about as accepted a form of judicial review as can exist.

Anyway, on topic. I would assume there has to be cases that were held pending the result of this one. While they'd have to grant one (delaying the process), I doubt the Court is left without options to resolve this open question.

Posted by: Erik M | Jan 30, 2015 9:17:41 AM

The facts of this case was so sympathetic, you can see why the liberals would have wanted to take it. It's good anyway that the guy is finally out. Looking at the basics, it is hard to see why he wasn't long before now. It shows how people fall between the cracks.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 30, 2015 9:54:05 AM

ETA: http://www.crimeandconsequences.com/crimblog/2015/01/miller-retroactivity-case-may-.html .... if this guy thinks the state overstepped, well ...

Posted by: Joe | Jan 30, 2015 9:55:32 AM

Erik: Agreed they will likely take another case, but they likely won't have time to set a new case for argument this term. So unless they go the per curiam route, it will probably be 2016 before a decision is rendered, which leaves a lot of folks in limbo...

Joe: My theory would be that the reason it wasn't settled before is that the DA's office just doesn't care that much. I don't think they were motivated to moot the case in the USSC for strategic reasons; I think the USSC angle just forced them (particularly the head DA) to actually pay attention to this case instead of reflexively opposing relief. And then they probably realized that their position was ridiculous.

Posted by: someguy | Feb 2, 2015 11:52:59 AM

someguy ... your reasoning seems reasonable -- such is how people fall between the cracks & why court review provides (however imperfect) a useful role

Posted by: Joe | Feb 2, 2015 1:16:57 PM

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