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George Toca, Jr.

Other Orleans Parish Exonerations
At about 6 a.m. on April 23, 1984, 24-year-old Ann Marie C. walked into a convenience store in the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana, to get a soda. Her fiancé, 24-year-old Todd S., stayed in the passenger seat of their car. As Anne Marie returned and got into the car, a young Black man asked her for some money. She replied that she only had 13 cents.

Just then, another young Black man thrust a gun into Anne Marie’s face and demanded her keys. She complied, then got out of the car, and began fighting with this man. Todd, who had been dozing, heard the commotion, got out of the car, and began fighting with the first young man, 17-year-old Eric Batiste. The man with the gun told Todd to leave Batiste alone. He then fired a shot, which hit Batiste just above the ear and killed him. The gunman fled.

Officers with the New Orleans Police Department quickly arrived at the scene and took statements from Anne Marie and Todd. They gave interviews to Detective Louis Berard later that day.

Todd described the gunman as 15-16 years old, between 5’10” and 6’ tall, 140 pounds, with a thin build, wearing a dark-colored T-shirt and faded but creased jeans.

Anne Marie described the gunman in similar terms: 16 years old, 5’ 10” tall, 135 pounds, faded jeans, and a dark shirt. In addition, they both agreed that the gunman was taller and appeared older than Batiste. Anne Marie told Berard that she would be able to identify the gunman if she saw him again. Todd said he would not be able to make an identification.

The police department sent out a teletype about the shooting that included Batiste’s name. Officer Marlon Defillo recognized the name and told Berard that Batiste was frequently with 17-year-old George Toca Jr. Defillo would later testify that the two boys were “inseparable.”

On April 26, 1984, Anne Marie and Todd went to the police station to look at a photo array that included Toca. Each selected him as the young man with a gun who shot Batiste. The photo was only a headshot, with no indication of Toca’s height or build. At the time, he was no taller than 5’ 5” and weighed about 110 pounds. In addition, the mugshot was several years old and did not show that Toca had four gold caps with moons and stars on his prominent front teeth. Neither Anne Marie nor Todd had mentioned that in their descriptions.

Police arrested Toca on April 27, 1984, and he was charged with first-degree murder in Batiste’s death.

Initially, Margaret Ford represented Toca, but she quickly withdrew as his attorney. Toca’s family then hired Henry Julien.

At a suppression hearing on September 14, 1984, Todd appeared to waver in his identification of Toca upon seeing him in person. He testified that he had picked Toca out of a photo array, and a prosecutor asked, “Are you positive now in your identification of Mr. Toca, the individual seated at the bar?”

Todd responded: “Not as I was at that particular time. I identified the picture. I mean, I am comfortable with it, yes.”

Toca’s trial in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court began in April 1985. There was no physical or forensic evidence tying Toca to the shooting; the state’s case relied on the identification of Toca by Todd and Anne Marie.

Julien presented two possible defenses. In a brief opening statement, Julien said the shooting was not deliberate, but also that Toca had an alibi.

Todd and Anne Marie each identified Toca at trial as the gunman who shot Batiste. Defillo testified about the tight friendship between Batiste and Toca, that he never saw one without the other.

Toca testified that on the night before the shooting, he and many other young people had gone to a dance at the Superdome. He said he left with 16-year-old Danielle Bernard, and they drove her car to the MRV Motel, where Toca rented a room for the night. His testimony included a description of the room’s interior as well as the price for a 12-hour stay. Toca testified that Bernard left after a few hours, that they talked on the phone, and then he went to sleep.

Bernard testified and denied going to the motel with Toca. In addition, the motel’s owner and a clerk testified that the motel didn’t rent to minors.

The jury deliberated and at one point appeared stuck. Judge Frank Shea visited the jury room and encouraged the jurors to reach a consensus. One juror would later note: “There was a split and some of us had doubts. I wasn’t totally convinced that Toca wasn’t at the hotel. The judge came into the jury room to help us with our questions. He was quite a personality. He said that he appreciated us trying to be thorough and taking time to talk, but could we please try to keep an open mind about coming to an agreement, and try to come to an agreement.”

The jury convicted Toca of second-degree murder on April 16, 1985. He was sentenced to life without parole.

During the next 15 years, Toca filed a series of appeals. In most of these petitions, he represented himself. Each time, the Louisiana courts affirmed the conviction. In 2000, Innocence Project New Orleans began representing Toca, who was among the organization’s first clients.

On August 5, 2004, Toca’s attorneys filed a motion for post-conviction relief in state court. Two years later, on April 26, 2006, the attorneys filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Both motions drew from the same set of claims, stating that prosecutors had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence and that an investigation had identified the real gunman and bolstered Toca’s alibi.

According to the motions, prosecutors didn’t disclose statements Todd and Anne Marie made to the police. Their initial descriptions of the gunman suggested a person much taller than Toca, and Todd had also said he probably wouldn’t be able to make an identification. Lacking those statements, Julien was unable to challenge either witness on their testimony.

Separately, the motions said the actual gunman was another young man named Edison Learson. He had been with Batiste at the Superdome dance. In affidavits, several witnesses said that Learson had tearfully confessed to accidentally shooting Batiste. The motions noted Learson’s extensive criminal record and his resemblance to the original description provided by Todd and Anne Marie.

After Toca was arrested, Bernard called the police and said they had the wrong man. She said the talk on the street was that a young man named Sean Jackson was involved in the shooting. The police showed Jackson’s photo to Todd and Anne Marie, but they made no identification. The police report that included this tip wasn’t turned over to Julien.

According to IPNO’s investigation, Jackson was driving the getaway car, so the victims wouldn’t have seen him. They obtained affidavits from several persons who said Jackson had told them about watching the shooting unfold before his eyes.

The MRV motel sat a block away from St. Peter Claver Catholic Church. The church’s priest, Father Michael Jacques, said in an affidavit that the motel frequently rented to minors, often not recording the rentals, and that the police and everyone in the neighborhood knew about its shady business practices.

“The MRV management, to protect themselves from losing the motel license, presented false testimony that they would never have rented a room to someone who looked as young as George Toca,” one of the motions said.

Toca’s alibi had been undercut by Bernard, but she recanted her trial testimony in July 2004. She said that she testified falsely about not being at the motel with Toca because she didn’t want her mother to know she had slept with him. “I was young and shy and didn’t want to talk about my personal life in front of everybody,” she said. “I didn’t think it would be a big deal because I knew George was innocent and I didn’t think he would be convicted.”

The motions also said that Julien was ineffective in his representation. Although prosecutors had not turned over important evidence, Julien didn’t adequately prepare for the trial, failing to interview witnesses who saw Toca at the dance or learn about the problems at the MRV motel, which would have bolstered Toca’s alibi.

For the next decade, these motions slowly wound their way through the state and federal courts. At one point, Toca’s attorneys moved to recuse the state trial judge hearing the motion for post-conviction relief, arguing that his previous work as an assistant to the prosecutor who tried the Toca case made it impossible for him to fairly evaluate the claim that the district attorney’s office failed to disclose exculpatory evidence. That motion was denied.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences for children convicted of homicide were unconstitutional. Toca filed for relief. The state opposed his motion, and the Louisiana courts affirmed his life sentence. At issue was whether the Miller ruling was to be applied retroactively.

In December 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Toca’s appeal, which addressed his right to a resentencing hearing but not his innocence.

Before the court could rule, on January 29, 2015, Toca and his attorneys reached an agreement with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. Toca entered an Alford plea to manslaughter and to two new counts of attempted armed robbery. Under an Alford plea, defendants do not admit guilt but acknowledge that there is sufficient evidence to convict. Toca left the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola that day.

The plea made the appeal moot, and it was withdrawn. (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that its Miller ruling should be applied retroactively.)

On December 16, 2021, Toca’s attorneys with Innocence Project New Orleans filed a motion to vacate his convictions, claiming the 2015 pleas were coerced. (Jason Williams had been elected district attorney in 2021 and was not involved with those pleas.) “Mr. Toca was given a choice that was no choice at all,” the motion said. “Remain in prison or accept the state’s offer to plead to a lesser charge in exchange for his release. Unable to refuse the state’s offer, Mr. Toca pled guilty to a lesser charge, and was released.” The motion said the vestiges of his wrongful conviction continued to hinder his life and that he remains innocent of any involvement in the crimes.

Because an attorney with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office had represented Toca in earlier appeals while working with Innocence Project New Orleans, a special prosecutor was appointed to represent the state, which joined in the defense motion. A judge granted the motion to vacate on July 20, 2022. The state dismissed the charges on September 13, 2022.

Toca subsequently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 2/15/2023
Last Updated: 9/14/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Manslaughter, Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1984
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No