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La. Prisoner Released, Dismissing Juvenile Life-Without-Parole Case

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on February 03, 2015 3:47 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court will have one fewer case to argue this term, following the release of a Louisiana inmate who's been in prison for almost 30 years.

In 1985, George Toca was convicted of the murder of his best friend during an armed robbery gone wrong. At the time of the murder, which occurred a year earlier, Toca was 17. He was sentenced to life without parole.

Toca's question was whether Miller v. Alabama applied retroactively.

Toca Released Following a 'Best Interest' Plea

The Supreme Court ruled in Miller in 2012 that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment doesn't allow a state to sentence a person to life without parole if he or she was under 18 at the time of the crime.

Toca's case went to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which decided in 2013 that Miller didn't apply retroactively. The U.S. Supreme Court granted his petition for certiorari in September, with oral arguments set for March 30.

All that's out the window now. Though Toca had always claimed he was innocent, he made a deal with prosecutors last week in which he pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery, in exchange for having his second-degree murder conviction vacated. The plea, called a "best interest plea," and known in many jurisdictions as an Alford plea, asserts innocence but acknowledges that the prosecution could probably obtain a conviction.

Toca's conviction was based on the testimony of the two white victims of the robbery, according to his cert. petition. The witnesses claimed that Toca accidentally shot Eric Batiste while the two were trying to rob them. Toca, however, has consistently argued that new evidence proves that he's factually innocent.

According to The Innocence Project New Orleans, the witnesses identified Toca as the shooter only because they knew he and Batiste were friends, even though the actual shooter was supposedly 6 inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Toca. The Innocence Project identified another man, who others have said matches the description of the shooter, as the probable culprit.

The Question Remains for Later

The Supreme Court likely granted the petition because of a circuit split on the question of Miller's retroactivity. Several states and six federal circuit courts have held that Miller is retroactive, while others have explicitly said it's not.

With the murder conviction vacated, Toca was freed from prison last week, as the plea agreement lifted the sentence of life without parole. That fact makes Toca's case before the Supreme Court moot, and by the Court's rules, the case will be dismissed automatically. Eager onlookers wondering if Miller really is retroactive will have to wait another day.

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