Free After 3 Decades In Prison, Sprinting Toward A New Life
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The next big thing that comes around, Chicken George wants a piece of the action.
"I'm trying to build an empire," said George Toca, who has settled into his sister's house in New Orleans East after three decades at Angola State Penitentiary. He'd been convicted of killing his best friend — someone he grew up with in the Lafitte housing development, tap-dancing for change in the French Quarter.
He says he didn't do it. The friend's family has always believed him. But a jury convicted him.
Toca, 48, struck a deal to gain his freedom Jan. 29. It took 26 days for him to register his new business, Royalty Horticulture, with the state.
Instead of state-issued duds, Chicken George — a nickname from his childhood, when he scooped up chicks from Mid-City streets — now dons Polo, head to toe.
"My main goal is to own a franchise. Whatever new trend may be, I want to have money and credit to buy into that," he said.
Toca is working toward that ambition after years tending to prison grounds, his sanity and a steadfast claim of innocence. They came at a stiff price, he said.
Toca's attorneys failed to convince a local judge in 2010 that he deserved a new trial in the killing of Eric Batiste during a botched 1984 stickup. Separately, the U.S. Supreme Court plucked Toca's case in December to decide if its 2012 ban on mandatory life sentences for juvenile convicts should apply to older cases such as his.
So when Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office offered a deal in late January to set him free, Toca agonized.
He would have to plead guilty to two counts of armed robbery and manslaughter in Batiste's death. Under an "Alford plea," Toca would not admit guilt, but would concede that strong evidence could have led to his conviction.
The deal also would erase the Supreme Court case, siphoning hope for new sentencing hearings for 1,000 lifers in four states, including more than 250 Louisiana convicts. Many were in Angola.
Toca said he couldn't sleep for days when he got word of a possible deal, then grappled for hours when it came in black and white. Other inmates weren't shy with their opinions.
"I was against taking it. I didn't commit the crime. I'm not comfortable being convicted of killing my best friend," he said. "A lot of guys said, 'Man, don't be silly, do it.' Other guys were saying to stand firm. One guy walked up to me and said, 'Chicken, if you miss this opportunity and it don't work out in the Supreme Court — if you miss this one here — you're going to lose your mind.' He made a good point."
Toca said he also considered Batiste's family, who have supported him since the start. That ultimately outweighed the Supreme Court case, Toca said.
Emily Maw, director of Innocence Project New Orleans, which worked on Toca's case since 2003, called it "the hardest decision I've ever seen a client have to make."
Toca's release disappointed advocates and inmates who had hoped to learn whether the high court's decision in Miller v. Alabama, forcing judges to consider a juvenile's youth before sentencing them to life without parole, was retroactive.
Toca, a 7th grade dropout, had earned a college degree behind bars, along with a bachelor's degree in Christian ministry, a diploma from an intensive carpentry program, a horticulture certification and others. If the Supreme Court was looking for a juvenile lifer who had grown, Toca seemed a promising fit.
One Louisiana inmate, Field Calhoun, filed a federal civil rights complaint accusing Toca, his attorneys and Cannizzaro's office of concocting the deal to scuttle the Supreme Court case.
However, the justices decided March 23 that they will consider the question through another Louisiana case — that of Henry Montgomery, 68. He has been held since 1963 for killing a sheriff's deputy in Baton Rouge. Montgomery was a 17-year-old 10th grader who was playing hooky from school when he shot Deputy Charles Hurt at a park where the officer and his partner were looking to round up truants.
Interviewed before the Supreme Court's announcement, Toca said he's growing more comfortable with his decision.
Now that he's free, he said, "I see how valuable freedom is, how difficult it is to get out of there," he said.
Toca says he was in a motel with his girlfriend the night Batiste was killed during a failed carjacking. Evidence the jury never heard, including testimony from friends, points to another friend as the one who accidentally shot him, Toca's attorneys argued.
Calvin Duncan, who left Angola in 2011 on a deal like Toca's, said he remembers Toca as a scared 17-year-old in Orleans Parish Prison.
"In the '80's, guys coming off the street were saying Chicken was innocent — everybody who was raised in that neighborhood. I always felt sorry for Chicken," he said.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro's office said reasons for the deal include the vehemence of Batiste's family in urging Toca's release, the fact he will remain on parole for another 30 years, and his record behind bars. The carjacking victims maintain they pegged the right kid, the spokesman said, but at least one felt that Toca had spent enough time in prison.
Duncan, who helped Toca with his legal case while at Angola, called his decision a "no-brainer."
"Guys might think he let them down, but now he's showing a better example that's going to speak louder than a hope that those crazy Supreme Court justices are going to do the right thing," Duncan said.
Toca says the streets seem more dangerous than they were when he went to prison. "Everybody's inside, doors and windows locked. It seems frightening, kind of scary now."
Toca entered prison as a teenager in a pre-Internet world. Now, he's turning to online "crowd-funding" to fuel his business plan.
Former Criminal District Judge Calvin Johnson, who is helping Toca with the crowd-funding, said he's impressed with how fast Toca has hit the ground.
"I said to George, you need to exhale. All those years that have happened to you, how do you get that out?" Johnson said. "To an extent I think he's done that. But he has that real driving ambition to start his own business and become self-sufficient."
Toca now has the trappings of normal life: A laptop, an iPod, a Zulu coconut he grabbed on the Mardi Gras parade route.
He does lawn work at Jackson Barracks for $9 an hour under a Goodwill program while he plots his business venture. He's collected a few lawnmowers, a leaf blower, a weed-eater. He says he's working up money for more gear and a truck to get around.
Toca said he got the franchise idea in prison, reading about success stories, plotting his own.
"I had that belief that a positive attitude would sustain me all those years," he said. "I didn't kill my best friend. I knew my day would come."
– by AP/ Reporter John Simerman with The New Orleans Advocate