Sometimes pleading guilty’s the only option an innocent man has

By Emily Bolton

Tonight, “Chicken” George Toca can have a bath if he likes, for the first time since 1984.

At the age of 17, he was sent to prison for life, for a crime he did not commit. They do not have baths at Louisiana State Penitentiary.

While Chicken George maintained his innocence, the system would not let him out. Only now that he has entered an entirely fictional plea of guilty to a lesser offence, is he free.

For the 9 years I worked such cases in the United States, I was told by visiting English volunteers that such atrocities would not occur in the English system.

In one sense they were right — in England, because the sentencing regime is different, you might only serve five or ten years. Unless you were sentenced indeterminately for public protection. Or you insisted on maintaining your innocence, which would mean not getting parole as you had not taken responsibility for your “offending behavior.” What an expression. If my son had been murdered, I would not call what had happened “offending behavior.”

Jeanetta Batiste’s son, Eric, Chicken’s best friend, was murdered in 1984, shot inadvertently by Edison Learson, who was acting as his partner in an armed robbery.

The Rt Hon. Lord Justice Sedley has observed that nothing has more influence over who you believe than who you are. The people who decided on what to believe about who killed Eric Batiste picked on Chicken George, simply because Chicken and Eric were best friends and assumed best friends do everything together, including armed robbery. No further details were required.

Jeanetta Batiste knew it wasn’t Chicken George who killed her son. For 31 years she asked for justice for George and for Eric. But because of who the decision makers were, they decided not to believe her, or the other witnesses, to whom Edison had confessed. Imagine losing your son and then knowing that his death had been made the pretext for a travesty of justice for another young man, for 31 years.

Chicken George’s freedom was won by Innocence Project New Orleans, a non-profit law practice that I once worked for, dedicated to fighting appeal cases for wrongfully convicted prisoners in the deep Southern United States. Chicken’s case was one of the very first we began to investigate, back in 2000. His freedom was ultimately won by persuading an innocent man to plead guilty. The racism built into the American criminal justice system meant that he could never be sure that the people who decide who to believe would ever change their minds and believe the black witnesses who said that Edison Learson shot Eric Batiste. Therefore this plea was unquestionably the right thing to do. Had Chicken George kept fighting, he would most likely have spent the next 31 years in prison as well, if he lasted that long.

But that couldn’t happen here in England, right?

Since starting work on a similar project here in this country, it has become very clear that it not only could happen here, but is happening here. We have heard from English prisoners who cannot get parole because they won’t admit the crime. Prisoners whose legal aid lawyers failed to investigate their alibis. Prisoners whose prosecutions were a “Hail Mary” by a police force that had failed to find evidence necessary to be able to prosecute the real perpetrator. Prisoners just like Chicken George Toca.

The state has stolen 31 years of Chicken George’s life. He is going to need more than a bath to restore him. And the prisoners we represent on appeal are a long way from being home and hosed — they need a whole lot of lawyering before we get them back on the right side of the bars, and in doing so persuade this country’s criminal justice system to clean up its own act.