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Louisiana inmate in key case to be freed (UPDATED)

(UPDATED 6:11 p.m.) George Toca has now been released, his lawyers said in a statement.

A Louisiana prison inmate whose life sentence is under review by the Supreme Court was on the verge of being released on Thursday, according to news accounts in New Orleans.  George Toca, convicted of second-degree murder nearly thirty years ago when he was seventeen years old and sentenced to life in prison without parole, was involved in a new plea bargain, those news stories said.

On December 12, the Supreme Court granted review of Toca’s case, to decide whether he could benefit from a 2012 decision limiting life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who are convicted of murder committed while still a minor.  With his murder conviction and sentence now apparently being vacated, that case could lose its legal significance for the Justices.

Prosecutors in New Orleans were quoted in local press accounts as offering Toca the option of entering a plea that the evidence against him was sufficient for a conviction — without specifically admitting guilt. That is what prosecutors call an “Alford plea.”

According to the reported terms of the deal, Toca would then plead guilty to two counts of armed robbery and, in exchange, the murder conviction would be vacated, and he would promptly be released from prison, where he has spent more than three decades.

An attorney for Toca was quoted as saying that, while he continued to claim he is innocent, he had chosen release from prison rather than continuing to pursue a legal challenge that might not succeed.  And a spokesman for the local district attorney was quoted as saying that Toca no longer was “a public safety risk.”  He is now forty-seven years old.

The Supreme Court has not yet scheduled a hearing on Toca’s case.  His attorneys, with the Innocence Project of New Orleans, filed their brief on the merits last Monday.

The case tests the potential retroactivity of the Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama.  While the Court in that ruling did not prohibit all life-without-parole sentences for minors convicted of murder, it imposed strict limits on such sentencing, and suggested that such a punishment should be a rarity.

Over the past year, the Court has several times turned down the same plea that it agreed to hear in Toca’s case.  If that case should now be taken off the docket, in the wake of his apparently imminent release, it is unclear whether the Court would take on the issue in another case.

The wording of its order granting review of the Toca petition at least implied that it was focusing on retroactivity only in “this case,” as the order put it.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Louisiana inmate in key case to be freed (UPDATED), SCOTUSblog (Jan. 29, 2015, 6:03 PM),