Two Angola lifers have gotten big news over the last couple of weeks.
After one of them, George Toca, admitted he had indeed killed a man, prosecutors decided he should go free. The other, Albert Woodfox, has always insisted he is innocent, and federal courts have twice thrown out his conviction. Prosecutors are nevertheless determined he will die n prison.
Justice sure resembles a lottery sometimes.
Maybe a sudden access of soft-heartedness played a part in Toca’s release, but it has every appearance of a tactical ploy. The U.S. Supreme Court was preparing to rule on his case, which had alarming implications for prosecutors here and in several other states. Now the issues raised by Toca, who got mandatory life when he was 17, will remain unconsidered, at least for now.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has indicted Woodfox for a third time. Woodfox, who remains in solitary confinement after more than 40 years at “The Farm,” had his conviction vacated again late last year because of racial discrimination in West Feliciana grand jury selection. It is inconceivable any jury could find Woodfox guilty at this late stage, and he is too old to pose a threat to public safety, but Caldwell is clearly not afflicted with a soft heart. He doesn’t care either how much it costs to keep Woodfox locked up.
Caldwell is convinced that Woodfox, who was doing time for armed robbery, was justly convicted of murdering a prison guard, although no blood stains or fingerprints matched and the state’s star witnesses were inmates who changed their stories and were granted favors for their co-operation. Regardless, Louisiana well deserves the obloquy it has received in this country and abroad for the mindless cruelty of Woodfox’s years in solitary.
The system has been kinder, albeit belatedly, to Toca. He is enjoying liberty for the first time in 30 years after New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro’s office vacated his murder conviction and let him plead guilty to manslaughter.
Toca and his attorneys insist it was all a fake, but it was either confess to a crime he didn’t commit, or stay in prison. The choice was an obvious one for him, but it means that countless other lifers convicted as juveniles will be denied their own shot at freedom, unless one of them can attract the Supreme Court’s attention. Otherwise prosecutors in such states as Louisiana will be spared the inconvenience of justifying life sentences, many of which go back decades.
The Supreme Court ruled a couple of years ago that automatic life for killers aged under 18 constitutes cruel and unusual punishment because youth is impetuous and incapable of weighing consequences. The young, moreover, have considerable scope for reform, the court noted, although it did not rule out life sentences for them entirely. It merely invalidated state laws that made them mandatory.
The court, however, made sure that confusion reigned by declining to decide whether its decision applied merely to future cases or also required reconsideration of old ones. Several states assumed it was retroactive, but Louisiana was one of several that didn’t. Toca was one of many lifers who argued they were wrong, and the Supreme Court plucked his petition from the hat.
He was an obvious candidate for the court’s consideration. A high-school dropout, Toca was awarded a college degree in Bible studies while in prison, where he also earned a diploma from an “intensive carpentry” program. Whatever that it is, it sounds impressive.
Toca had no disciplinary record to speak of, and certainly proved that inmates can better themselves, although he and his attorneys have always insisted he was in no need of reform, having been fingered by unreliable witnesses and convicted on flimsy evidence.
Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that happened. Other witnesses backed up Toca’s claim that he was elsewhere when he was supposed to have shot his accomplice by accident in the course of an armed robbery attempt, but his conviction held up. The victim’s family has long campaigned on Toca’s behalf.
Before Toca was released, Cannizzaro argued in a Supreme Court brief that making its decision retroactive would impose an undue burden on prosecutors.
The official line is that Toca’s release followed lengthy negotiations between Cannizzaro’s office and the Innocence Project in New Orleans, and had nothing to do with the pending Supreme Court ruling. That assurance seemed every bit as sincere as the confession prosecutors cooked up for Toca.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.