DECEMBER 7, 2014
Documentary filmmaker Soledad O’Brien discusses her new project on the NYPD’s interaction with black New York residents.
DECEMBER 7, 2014
Documentary filmmaker Soledad O’Brien discusses her new project on the NYPD’s interaction with black New York residents.
In this extended edition of Rebel Music: Native America, follow the lives of four Indigenous musicians and activists as they incite change in their communities through their art. Starring Frank Waln, Inez Jasper, Nataanii Means and Mike “Witko” Cliff. Learn more at http://www.RebelMusic.com.
FEBRUARY 6, 2015
THE PUBLIC ARCHIVE: Ada Ferrer is Professor of History and Latin American Studies at New York University. Her research focuses on the themes of race and slavery, and nationalism and revolution, in the nineteenth-century Caribbean and Atlantic World. Her first book, Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868–1898, a critical, path-breaking study of the multiracial history of Cuban independence, was awarded the Berkshire Book Prize for the best first book by a woman historian in any field of history. Insurgent Cuba was translated into Spanish and published in Havana as Cuba Insurgente: Raza, nación y revolución and in French as La Guerre d’Indépendance Cubaine: Insurrection et Émancipation à Cuba! 1868-1898. Ferrer’s second book, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution, has just been published. It promises to add to our understanding of both Haiti’s and Cuba’s struggles for freedom and the significance and impact of the Haitian Revolution on the Americas. Ferrer’s articles have appeared in the American Historical Review, Annales, Review: Journal of the Fernand Braudel Center, Revista de Indias, Caminos, and Radical History Review.
Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868–1898, examines ideas of race, nation and citizenship in the context of Cuba’s late nineteenth-century anti-colonial struggles. Freedom’s Mirror examines the impact of Haiti and the Haitian Revolution on Cuban society. What led you from one project to the next?
My first book, Insurgent Cuba, examined the role of slaves and former slaves in the wars for Cuban independence and in the development of Cuban nationalism more broadly. One of the things that struck me in doing the research for that book was how very important the idea—or even just the mention—of Haiti was. The Spanish government in Cuba constantly invoked Haiti as a warning and accusation, as a device with which to argue against Cuban independence. “This is a black movement,” they would say; or this is the prelude to “race war,” or to “a black republic like Haiti.” Opponents of independence constantly used the specter of Haiti. This specter of Haiti was not something I discovered; in fact, it was very common for historians and other writers to talk about how the specter of Haiti partly explained the “late” independence of Cuba. As is well known, most of Latin America became independent between 1810-1826, whereas Cuba did not defeat Spain until 1898. Historians often explained that divergence by arguing that local elites were unwilling to risk a rebellion, for fear of unleashing “another Haiti.”
So, I became interested in getting behind or beyond that specter. It was that interest that led me to begin working on Freedom’s Mirror. I wanted to understand what people in Cuba actually knew about Haiti and how exactly they knew it.
And what I found surprised me. I found that for all the use of Haiti as a specter in nineteenth-century Cuba, in fact, Haiti in Cuba was much more than spectral. A specter is something incorporal, imagined. Haiti was definitely imagined in Cuba, but people also knew it and experienced it much more intimately, materially.
I’ll give you an example: There is a hugely important phase of the Haitian Revolution, in 1793-1794, when most of the black rebel slaves of Saint-Domingue ally with Spain (which controls Santo Domingo, right on the border with Saint Domingue). You have tens of thousands of rebels fighting against the French, and they do so as “auxiliaries” of the Spanish army. What we had not appreciated in the past is the extent to which the Spanish army on the Saint-Domingue border was actually composed of troops and officers from Cuba. So, in effect, you have men from Cuba dealing with Toussaint Louverture, Jean François, Georges Biassou, and other leaders of the black rebellion. One of the Cuban officers, the Marques de Casa Calvo, who would later be the last Spanish governor of Louisiana, and who owned two sugar plantations and an unknown number of slaves in Havana, actually started a business with the rebels—buying sugar equipment from them and then sending it to Havana. He became the godfather of Jean-François and even flirted and danced with his wife. A sector of the Cuba elite thus had intimate contact and knowledge of the revolution. They thought they could control it and manage it. It was not some shadowy bogeyman, but a concrete, material part of their political education.
Among slaves and people of color you see something equivalent. Many scholars have argued that the Haitian Revolution –to quote Eugene Genovese—“propelled a revolution in consciousness” among African Americans. I agree, but again it was one based on material contact and knowledge. So, I was surprised for instance to see that documents such as the Haitian Declaration of Independence and other important texts of black leaders were actually translated into Spanish, published in newspapers, and circulated in Cuba, where they were read and discussed by people of color. Black people had real access to the words, ideas, and pronouncements of the revolution. Again, it was not only some vague abstract hope that slaves and free people of color in Cuba had; they engaged with the revolution and later with the Haitian state in more concrete ways. There are many other examples I could give and that appear throughout the book.
“A Black Kingdom of this World: History and Revolution in Havana, 1812,” one of the chapters in Freedom’s Mirror, riffs on the title of Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Kingdom of this World. Is Carpentier’s historical imagination important to your own reconstruction of Caribbean and Atlantic events? And what is the significance of 1812 and, as you put it, the “next Black Kingdom” of the world of José Antonio Aponte and others?
Carpentier is a beautiful writer, and I think that is important. His vision of the Haitian Revolution, even perhaps of revolution more generally, also strikes a chord with me. The Kingdom of this World is in many ways a pessimistic novel. The main character, Ti Noel returns to independent Haiti (having spent decades in eastern Cuba) and finds a majestic black world. Black men rule; the priests and saints are all black; so are the artists and musicians. This is power; this is something new created from revolution. But if the artists and saints and kings are black, so too are the men who force others to labor, who compel people to march, to carry stones and build fortresses, to plant and harvest, to obey. This too is created by revolution—a new freedom that contains within it new structures of domination. Some literary critics have argued that Carpentier’s vision of the revolution is too negative, too skewed, too focused on the repression of King Christophe. In some ways, however, Carpentier’s Haiti recalls the one imagined by José Antonio Aponte in Havana in 1811-1812. Aponte’s Haiti (like Carpentier’s) appears to be Christophe’s—not Toussaint’s or Pétion’s.
As some of you know, Aponte was a free black carpenter in Havana; he was a veteran of the colonial free black militia, maybe a priest of santería. And he was apparently the leader of an ambitious plot to rebel, raise the slaves and free people of color, and overthrow slavery in Cuba. The movement did manage to strike on several sugar plantations on the outskirts of Havana, but it was soon crushed.
Aponte was an exceptional, fascinating person—creative and erudite. He kept a book of paintings or drawings—a kind of mixed media scrapbook in which he drew and pasted in other images. It depicts a breathtaking array of stories, allegories, characters: Greek and Roman gods, European and mostly African kings and emperors, black priests, saints and other biblical figures, his own ancestors, Indian women, roosters, ships, moons, stars, and on and on. Unfortunately, the book is lost, and we know about it only through the descriptions Aponte gave to authorities when questioned. Still, there are many things we can glean from Aponte’s judicial testimony.
The book is many things, and I think Aponte created it as many things, as work of art and interpretation that could call forth different stories and different meanings depending on who saw it and what Aponte wanted to reveal to them. Thus an important-looking black figure in the book was—when Aponte spoke to authorities—a black dignitary in Rome. The same figure, when he talked to his co-conspirators, became King Christophe of Haiti. One way that I think Aponte intended the book to be read was as a meditation on black sovereignty. The book was a pictorial, intellectual, subversive experiment in thinking through a black kingdom—the one he and his companions were seeking to create, the one modeled by contemporary Haiti, by historical Ethiopia.
The significance of Aponte for Cuba has always been clear. This was one of the most ambitious antislavery movements in the island’s history. But Aponte—his book and his movement—also provide a wonderful opportunity to explore the intellectual history of the Black Atlantic. Even without the actual book and with only Aponte’s testimony about it, we have an incredibly rich source for exploring the worldview of a black artist and revolutionary, a rare if puzzling glimpse into what he knew and read and what he might have imagined. Still, we do well to think about the book in the context of the political movement that Aponte was making. Aponte showed the book to his fellow conspirators, explaining some of its images as a way to plan for and think about their own revolution. The book is a fascinating object, a missing visual text, but it was also part of the material history of an antislavery revolution.
The essay “Talk about Haiti: The Archive and the Atlantic’s Haitian Revolution” critically engages with the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot’swell-known and oft-deployed claim concerning the “silencing” of Haiti within the historiography of the Atlantic World by examining the remarkable efflorescence of narrative knowledge about Haiti in Cuba during and after Revolution. “If this was silence,” you state in the introduction, “it was a thunderous one.” But I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how and why Trouillot’s claims have gained such traction and how and why the metaphor of silence has persisted?
Trouillot’s metaphor, Trouillot’s work has had such traction because it captures something indisputable about history as written. We all know that history is written by victors. Reading Trouillot’s incisive critique reminds us of that: there is no Haiti in what have long been the standard references on the French Revolution. Indeed, even in the nineteenth century, it was rare to find historical actors writing about Haiti, for the most part they continued to write about Saint-Domingue, or Santo Domingo, or San Domingo. Part of the political isolation imposed on Haiti was intellectual—the powers of the world wrote as if the new nation did not exist. Silence was a political instrument, in addition to being an intellectual position. Trouillot’s insights point us to those truths.
But the intellectual and political work of silencing does not always require a literal erasure. Trouillot himself acknowledges that when he writes about what he calls “banalization”—when something by constant repetition, “gnawed by all sides” he wrote, becomes trivialized, emptied of revolutionary content. At the time of the Haitian Revolution, the revolution was everywhere invoked; power holders spoke constantly of the dangers of “other Haitis.” This was not a literal silence, but a figurative or “thunderous” one, maybe akin to the constant, seemingly automatic addition of the descriptor “the poorest nation in the hemisphere” after the name Haiti in popular and journalistic writing today. This is why Trouillot’s idea of silence—understood broadly as both erasure and banalization—has resonated so deeply; it brilliantly and evocatively captures the ways in which power pervades what we know as history.
There is one area, however, where I think Trouillot’s arguments could be developed differently, and that is in relation to the archive, which Trouillot understands as an institution of power. That is indisputable and I wholeheartedly agree. But having spent a lot of time researching and reading in archives, I appreciate how very messy and unpredictable they can be. Their scope and the every-dayness of the massive volume of records they hold is something that is hard to fathom from the outside. And so I think that in addition to understanding the archive as site of power, we can also understand it as a place that also reveals the fissures in that power. Silences exist clearly, but they do not emerge fully formed, or total. In the abundance and outsized character of the archive, we have an incredible resource for tracing the ways in which the very silences that Trouillot writes about are constructed, maintained, challenged day to day, by real people and institutions, in real places under concrete circumstances.
Ideally, I think, we should be able to somehow combine the eloquent critique of Trouillot’s with the intelligent faith of Arlette Farge in her book The Allure of the Archive.
Can you say something about the nature of the archives you visited and on the kinds of documents you were able to unearth?
For me, the archives—even in their tedium—are an incredible source of energy and creativity and thinking. Their messiness, their voluminousness is generative. For Freedom’s Mirror I worked in about twenty of them, mostly in Spain and Cuba, but also France, England, Haiti, and the U.S.
One kind of document that I used a lot is judicial testimony from cases of rumored or actual conspiracies and rebellions. Over days and weeks, and hundreds and even thousands of pages, authorities asked questions: who initiated the plot, what was their specific plan, who tried to recruit whom, who acceded? And so on. The testimony accumulates, much of it recounting conversations among conspirators or between conspirators and potential recruits. Throughout, denials are routine; also frequent are attempts to deflect blame. Often, one witness’s testimony at the beginning of the process contradicts that given later, and almost always, testimony from one witness directly contradicts that of another. What we encounter in this mountain of testimony, then, is contradictory fragments of captured speech, a profusion of questions “whose answers” to quote Arlette Farge “are incomplete and imprecise, snippets of speech and life, whose connecting thread is difficult to make out.”
Still, amidst the unavoidable uncertainty, we find some arresting surprises in this voluminous archive that records the speech of people whose speech and thought was not usually recorded. For example, witnesses often recount subversive conversations about freedom and revolution. That testimony—that captured speech—regularly reveals that conspirators invoked and discussed histories that they deemed relevant, they analyzed the past for lessons, discussing a range of precedents. For example, sometimes they discussed amongst themselves the rebellions and petitions for freedom by the King’s slaves in the copper mines of El Cobre; they discussed a deadly, but ultimately failed rebellion of slaves in Puerto Principe in 1798; in one instance, African slaves talked about Charlemagne and his twelve peers as an example. More often, they spoke of the Haitian Revolution and, later, of the actions of the Haitian state itself as guides and motivation.
It is the presence of such discussions that makes the testimony of enslaved and free black witnesses an invaluable source for pursuing the study of what Laurent Dubois called “the intellectual history of the enslaved,” or for writing an intellectual history of the Atlantic World in which enslaved and free people of color are active participants.
One of the things that is most exciting about the process of archival research is not knowing exactly what you’ll find. For example, I have spent years looking for Aponte’s missing book of drawings. At one point, I became convinced that maybe it was in the Nobility Section of the Spanish National Archives in Toledo, Spain. The papers of the Someruelos family are there, and Somoruelos was the Spanish governor of Cuba during the Aponte conspiracy. He left almost immediately after Aponte’s execution, and he had apparently asked to see some of the trial material before his return to Spain at the end of his tenure. Could he have taken Aponte’s book with him? And might it now be tucked among his family’s papers in Toledo? So, I went to look.
I didn’t find it. But I found something else, entirely unexpected: a couple of small half sheets of paper, in rushed, sloppy handwriting, with the briefest description of the start of the rebellion in the Havana countryside. I don’t think anyone had used them before, and they revealed something I don’t think anyone had known about before. Namely, that the rebels attacked the sugar plantation owned by Havana’s deputy to the Spanish congress, a man who had very publicly opposed the abolition of slavery and the slave trade just months before. That the rebels would target his property reveals something incredibly important about the political project of the rebels. Yet that aspect of the movement had been written out of contemporary accounts then and since. An instance of the kind of erasure Trouillot wrote about, perhaps. Still, the archive itself helped us find it.
Image: From Justo G. Cantero, Los ingenios: colección de vistas de los principles ingenios de azúcar de la isla de Cuba (Illustrator: Eduardo Laplante) (1857)
IF YOU’RE STILL
THE SAME AFTERWARDS
IT WASN’T LOVE
(to nia, thanx for making me better)
“i am touched
is to be
a person neither of us
entering the other
more open, a sun of sensitivity
emotionally nude, erupting joy
& willing to kiss life open mouthed
emoting the vibrancy of glow
endemic to souls in the flow
in fact, it’s even unscientific
not to evol
ve/not to love, not to
grow & give back
the only humans who actually evolve
just simply fuck and reproduce
—kalamu ya salaam
Monday, February 23 2015
You knew John Legend’s acceptance speech for Best Song at the Oscars was going to be good when he quoted Nina Simone and said, “It’s an artist’s duty to relflect the tmes in which we live.” From there, he called out the attacks on voting rights and racial disparities in incarceration. His performance with Common of the “Selma” theme song “Glory” was the night’s most moving moment, but his speech really brought down the house.
First, here’s Common and John Legend’s powerful performance:
And here are the speeches that followed:
Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of “Birdman,” which closed out the night by winning the award for Best Picture, managed to overcome Sean Penn’s racist “Who gave this son of a bitch a green card?” joke and called for “dignity and respect for immigrants” in his speech:
Ends on 3/31/2015
Every year, we hold a writing competition in conjunction with the Hugo Literary Series. We seek previously unpublished poems, short stories, and personal essays of no more than 1,500 words on the theme “One Hour” (scroll down for more info). The winner will receive $500 and an invitation to read at the final Hugo Literary Series on May 29, 2015, alongside Meg Wolitzer, Justin Torres, Amelia Gray, and musician Abi Grace. Entries must be received by March 31, 2015 at midnight. There is an entry fee of $12. Please read the guidelines carefully before submitting.Guidelines: Do not include name and contact information anywhere within the document. Submissions should be typed in 12-point standard font and have numbered pages. Prose should be double-spaced. In the prompted space, include a cover page with the following information: genre and title/titles of your work, name, address, phone number, and email address.
Entry Restrictions: The New Works Competition is open to residents of all states; however, those out of state will need to cover their own travel.
Please write on the following theme:
A lot can happen in an hour. Tobias Wolff’s famous short story “Bullet in the Brain” takes place over the span of a few minutes; the second half of the story, in fact, takes place over a fraction of a second. Great storytelling is about managing time within the story—the writer needs to choose when to slow time down, when to speed it up, and when to march along in step. Your piece must take place within the span of an hour, be it a poem, story, or essay.
Date: May 8-9, 2015
Location: New York University, King Juan Carlos Center,
53 Washington Square South, Auditorium
Over the past fifteen years, scholars have shown a renewed interest in the political and historical legacy of José Antonio Aponte (?-1812), a free man of color, carpenter, artist, and alleged leader of a massive antislavery conspiracy and rebellion in colonial Cuba in 1811-1812. Aponte was also the creator of an unusual work of art—a “book of paintings” full of historical and mythical figures, including black kings, emperors, priests, and soldiers that he showed to and discussed with fellow conspirators. Aponte’s vision of a black history connected a diasporic and transatlantic past to the possibility of imagining a sovereign future for free and enslaved people of color in colonial Cuba. Although the “book of paintings” is believed to be lost, colonial Spanish officials interrogated Aponte about its contents after arresting him for organizing the rebellions, and Aponte’s sometimes elaborate, always elusive, descriptions of the book’s pages survive in the textual archival record.
From myriad locations in the humanities, historians, anthropologists, philosophers, literary scholars, and art historians have explored the figure of Aponte as artist, intellectual, revolutionary, and theorist. In addition to this scholarly interest, Aponte has also been re-enshrined as a national figure in contemporary Cuba, following a 2012 bicentennial that commemorated his death at the hands of colonial authorities. However, given the recent scholarly and public focus on Aponte, there has not yet been a conference dedicated to the interdisciplinary scholarly perspectives that have sought to advance the study of the singular “book of paintings” and its visionary creator.
“José Antonio Aponte and His World: Writing, Painting, and Making Freedom in the African Diaspora” brings together scholars to discuss the current state of “Apontian” studies and suggest future directions for scholarship. It includes, as well, scholars doing work on questions of historical memory, the intellectual history of the enslaved, and the relationship between text, image, and politics in other settings in order to put Aponte’s history in conversation with a wider world, much, indeed, as his own “book of paintings” tried to do.
To register for the conference, please click here.
The conference will take place in the auditorium of the King Juan Carlos Center at New York University, 53 Washington Square South. Click here for a Google map. The closest subway is the West 4th station where the A, B, C, D, E, F trains stop. For more information, please contact lmr273 [@] nyu [.] edu.
CfP: Francophone Literature of Africa and the Caribbean
2015 Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association (RMMLA) Convention
The 69th Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association (RMMLA) Convention will be held from October 8-10, 2015 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The website is http://www.rmmla.org.
The session ‘Francophone Literature of Africa and the Caribbean’ is devoted to Francophone Literatures, Cultures, and Film of Africa and the Caribbean.
Topics include but are not limited to:
Please submit your abstract for a 15-20-minute presentation (in English or French) with title and contact information by March 15, 2015to:
Modern Languages Faculty
Walker 325, 900 SE Baker Street
Linfield College, McMinnville, OR 97128
February 19, 2015
Feb. 19 — There are an estimated 1,500 people in the U.S. serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed while they were juveniles. It’s called JLWOP and in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled the sentence was unconstitutional. But the court did not address what to do about the people already serving JWLOP sentences. George Toca was one of them. On Jan. 29, 2015, he was released after signing a plea agreement with the Orleans Parish District Attorney. Bloomberg spent a day with Toca as he experienced his new life on the outside. (Video by Jennafer Savino, David Yim)
The gold caps on George Toca’s teeth don’t fit. Put in when he was 15, they’re now more than three decades old and too small. One of them, shaped like a four-leaf clover, has eroded to four vague white dots on his once-brilliant grill.
Toca, 48, left them in, hoping they would help him get out of prison.
In 1984, when Toca was 17, he was charged with accidentally shooting and killing his best friend, Eric Batiste, during a failed carjacking. Victims picked him out of lineups, despite initial statements to police describing an older, heavier shooter who was at least five inches taller than Toca and who did not have four gleaming gold caps on his top front teeth.
Largely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, Toca was convicted of second-degree murder in 1985 and given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He has spent most of the last 31 years in Louisiana’s notorious Angola state penitentiary.
“I thought these [caps] would be my ticket out someday,” he said.
Toca has had an interesting winter. In addition to denying responsibility for his friend’s killing—and working with lawyers at the Innocence Project New Orleans since 2003 to prove his case—Toca appealed to be resentenced based on his age at the time of the alleged crime. The U.S. Supreme Court selects less than 2 percent of the cases presented to it. In December, it agreed to hear Toca’s appeal.
Until recently, the U.S. was the only developed country in the world in which people under 18 could be sentenced to death or to a mandatory sentence of life without parole. For almost a decade, the Supreme Court has chiseled away at laws allowing these sentences. In 2005, the court ruled that juveniles’ “lack of maturity,” susceptibility “to negative influences and outside pressures,” and “transitory, less fixed” personality traits meant they couldn’t be sentenced to death. Following this logic, it ruled five years later that juveniles couldn’t be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses.
Then, in 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life without parole, handed down in 29 states’ murder cases as well as those in federal court, is unconstitutional for offenders younger than 18.
The decision left a question on the table: What about those who had already been convicted? Should they be resentenced?
Some states have said that all juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole should have a new sentencing hearing. Others—Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota—have decided against retroactivity. The exact numbers are in dispute, but according to figures from Human Rights Watch and estimates from the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, that means about 1,500 sentences nationwide hang in the balance.
By agreeing to hear and decide Toca’s appeal, the Supreme Court planned to end the uncertainty of those cases.
But in the weeks after the court agreed to hear the case, Toca was approached by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro with a tempting offer. Toca had long maintained his innocence in the shooting, but now the D.A. had a deal for him. If he signed a plea agreement admitting to armed robbery, Cannizzaro would drop the original conviction and Toca would be paroled immediately.
Neither Toca’s lawyers nor Cannizzaro’s office have made specific statements about the timing of the agreement. The D.A.’s office didn’t respond to repeated messages seeking comment.
Sentencing law expert Douglas Berman, a professor at Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, suggests that Toca’s case would have reflected negatively on both Louisiana—whose state Supreme Court decided in November 2013 against retroactivity—and the district attorney’s office, which over the decades had repeatedly fought Toca’s requests for a new trial.
“This was a case where there was some residual uncertainty about guilt—a case in which the victim’s family was supportive of releasing the defendant,” Berman said. (Eric Batiste’s family has long advocated for Toca and said they believe another man killed the teenager.) “I think those are the kind of circumstances that would’ve made a great majority of courts comfortable saying, ‘This is why the rule needs to be retroactive.’ I can see [Cannizzaro’s office] not wanting national attention about any of those issues.”
Toca agreed to the plea deal. Around noon on Jan. 29 he signed the documents. That evening he was a free man, eating a Big Mac at a McDonald’s near his sister’s home in East New Orleans.
With that, those 1,500 cases were again cast into limbo.
On a cool and sunny Friday afternoon this month, near the offices of the Innocence Project New Orleans, Toca was pragmatic about all this. He’d been out of prison just two weeks.
“When I heard I was wanted [for murder] back in ’84, I didn’t flee. I turned myself in. I trusted the system and I wanted to clear my name,” he said, wearing new jeans, a new coat, and new shoes friends and family had bought for him. “Then I was wrongfully convicted and sat in prison 31 years. So when my lawyer came to me and said, ‘You can sign this agreement and leave,’ I was devastated, but I knew I had to sign it. If I didn’t, I knew I was gonna die in Angola.”
Toca’s release was bittersweet. He’s no longer in a cage. He’s catching up with friends on the outside, learning how to use his new smartphone, and looking to find a job. He wants to make something of the landscaping and pest eradication skills he learned as a prisoner, and get paid more than the 20 cents an hour he was making as a kitchen worker behind bars.
Since he agreed to a plea deal, though, the Supreme Court dismissed his case and he is no longer standing in for 1,500 juvenile lifers like him in front of the nation’s highest court.
For those who believe juveniles sentenced to life behind bars should be forced to spend their lives there, Toca’s release is actually good news. “This shows me that the system works,” said Bobbi Jamriska, whose pregnant sister was brutally beaten and stabbed to death in 1993 by a 16-year-old in suburban Pittsburgh. “They went back and they questioned his case and raised their concerns, and [Toca] ended up being let out of jail.”
Jamriska has fought hard to keep both the death penalty and life without parole on the table for juvenile offenders. As Pennsylvania director of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, she said her organization didn’t want Toca’s case in front of the Supreme Court anyway. His case is “an extreme,” she said.
“Even the victim’s family is saying, ‘Get him out of jail,’ ” Jamriska said. “We’d prefer to have a case that’s more representative of some of the horrific crimes juveniles commit.”
She cited the murder of Danni Romig, a 12-year-old girl from Allentown, Pa., who was beaten, raped, and murdered by a 17-year-old boy. The boy had a 23-point handwritten note titled “Things to do when you get a girl in the woods.” It included the instructions “Strip her bare,” “Strip yourself,” and “Slow beat her to death for all pain you had in life”—all tortures he carried out on the sixth-grader. Jamriska said Danni Romig’s murder illustrates that “you need the option of life without parole—you can’t get rid of that.”
The Romig murder itself is an extreme example, Jamriska added. “The next time [the Supreme Court] decides on a case, we hope it picks something in the middle of those extremes,” she said.
Emily Maw, director of Innocence Project New Orleans and Toca’s lawyer, rejects the idea that Toca’s case represents a criminal justice infrastructure working as it should.
“The system did not work for George Toca,” she said. “It utterly failed him for 31 years, ruined his life, and ultimately forced him to plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit in order to get out of prison.”
She cites Toca’s years of education—a bachelor’s degree earned behind bars, certificates in carpentry and pest eradication—and says he’s not a unique case.
“There are scores and scores of middle-aged and old men who were imprisoned with him in Louisiana, who were sentenced to life as juveniles and who are now among the most rehabilitated prisoners in Louisiana, and likely the country. The system is not working for them either,” she said.
Will the Supreme Court give them another chance?
Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, believes it will. At least five cases—three in Louisiana, two in Michigan—have been sent for Supreme Court review and could replace Toca’s, but not until the next term at the earliest. That’s in October.
Levick doesn’t blame Toca for his decision.
“First and foremost, good for him,” she said. “I don’t think anybody who has been waiting for the retroactivity issue to be ruled upon would in any way question the decision that George Toca made. How could he not walk out of prison after 30 years?”
For the other juvenile lifers nationwide, “obviously it was disappointing,” she said. “They’re still waiting, just as they have been for 30, 40, 50 years. And they think it’s time for them to get out as well.”
Toca hopes they do, too. Sitting outside with the sun shining above him, he looked down and offered an apology.
“I know they was really relying on my case to get the retroactivity of the Miller case resolved,” he said. “All I can say is, I’m sorry that I let ’em down. This was all I could do.”