Free after three decades in prison, George Toca sprints toward a new life _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SHERRI MILLER -- George Toca, at his sister's home in New Orleans East on Monday, Mar. 9, 2015.

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.

Toca struck a deal to gain his freedom on Jan. 29. It took all of 26 days for him to register his new business, Royalty Horticulture, with the state.

In the meantime, he has shed his state-issued duds. Chicken George 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.

They are long-held ambitions that Toca, 48, is now realizing after years tending to the prison grounds, his sanity and a steadfast claim of innocence. But they came at a stiff price, he said.

Toca’s innocence claim was mired in legal limbo, after his attorneys failed to convince a local judge at a 2010 hearing that he deserved a new trial in the killing of his childhood best friend, 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 retroactively, 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 need to plead guilty to two counts of armed robbery and manslaughter in the killing of the buddy he grew up with in the Lafitte housing development, tap-dancing for change in the French Quarter. Under an “Alford plea,” Toca would not admit guilt, but would concede that strong evidence could have led to his conviction.

Taking the deal also meant the Supreme Court case would vanish, siphoning hope for new sentencing hearings for 1,000 lifers in four states, including more than 250 Louisiana convicts. Many were Toca’s Angola prison mates.

Toca said he couldn’t sleep for days when he got word of a possible deal, then grappled for several 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 backed his innocence claim since the start. That ultimately weighed more heavily than the Supreme Court case, Toca said.

“A lot of guys were looking forward to my case. They were kids like me. But everybody wants to get out of Angola,” he said. “I had an opportunity to get out of prison. They got their own decisions.”

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. He spent 30 torturous years trying to prove he didn’t do it.”

“It was a really dreadful position he was in,” Maw said. “The pressure was intense. So many middle-aged men are serving life without parole for things they did decades ago — all of those men whose burden he carried when he agreed to take the plea.”

Toca’s release disappointed advocates and inmates who had hoped to finally settle the retroactivity question raised by the high court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which forced judges to consider a juvenile’s youth before sentencing them to life without parole.

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 shown the capacity for growth, Toca seemed a promising fit.

Such were the hopes riding on his case that one Louisiana inmate, Field Calhoun, filed a federal civil rights complaint last week, accusing Toca, his attorneys and Cannizzaro’s office of concocting the deal to scuttle the Supreme Court case.

Advocates say it may not be long before the high court adopts another case to settle the issue, which arose when state Supreme Courts in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota ruled that Miller v. Alabama wasn’t retroactive, while other courts found the opposite.

Three similar cases are now pending before the Supreme Court. Two of the petitioners are from Louisiana. Rodney Tolliver, 46, was convicted in 2007 for the murder of a Lafayette woman in her home in 1985, when he was 16. Henry Montgomery, 68, is serving a life sentence for the murder of a man in East Baton Rouge Parish in 1963. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to consider both cases on Friday.

While that plays out, Toca said he’s growing more comfortable with his decision.

“That strong stand, the conviction I had, holding to my truth, may not have been the best thing,” he said. “I’d have been prepared to stay in there. Since I’ve been out a few weeks I’ve softened up that stance. I see how valuable freedom is, how difficult it is to get out of there.”

Police turned to Toca early on in the investigation of Batiste’s killing, based on their tight childhood bond. Toca says he was in a motel with his girlfriend that night. Evidence the jury never heard, including testimony from friends, points to another friend as the one who fired the fatal, accidental shot at Batiste during the failed carjacking, Toca’s attorneys argued.

Calvin Duncan, who left Angola in 2011 after striking a similar deal with Cannizzaro’s office, said he remembers Toca as a scared 17-year-old stuck in Orleans Parish Prison.

“He was a little bitty fella’ when he came on the tier. He was a kid. I was telling him, don’t worry, they’re going to find the guy that was actually with Eric,” Duncan said. “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.”

In striking the deal, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office cited the vehemence of Batiste’s family in urging Toca’s release and the fact he will remain on parole for another 30 years. The carjacking victims maintain they pegged the right kid, the spokesman said, but at least one “felt the time (Toca) had spent in prison was sufficient.” With his record behind bars, the DA determined that Toca was “no longer a public safety risk,” the spokesman said.

Duncan, who helped Toca with his legal case while at Angola, called his decision a “no-brainer.”

“He had to deal with his own mental state,” Duncan said. “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.”

Toca got his nickname scooping up baby chicks as a kid on the streets around Mid-City. Along with the nickname, he still wears gold teeth like he sported as far back as 1982.

“The world has changed. It seems like the streets are more dangerous,” he said of his old stomping grounds. “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 is turning to online “crowd-funding” to fuel his business plan.

Former Criminal District Judge Calvin Johnson, who is helping Toca with his crowd-funding idea, 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.”

At home now, Toca is set up with the trappings of normal life: A laptop, an iPod, a Zulu coconut he grabbed on the Mardi Gras parade route.

He works at Jackson Barracks, doing lawn work under a Goodwill program that pays $9 an hour while he pushes his business venture. He’s collected a few lawnmowers, a leaf blower, a weed-eater. He says he’s still working up the 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.”

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman