NEW ORLEANS- Chief Judge Brian A. Jackson of the Middle District of Louisiana ruled today in favor of Plaintiffs Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code, and James Magee in their lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections regarding the extreme heat conditions on Death Row at Angola. Chief Judge Jackson ruled that these conditions violate the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment, and found that “it is beyond dispute that a permanent injunction against Defendants serves the public interest in that it will enforce the fundamental rights enshrined in the United States Constitution.” To remedy these conditions, Judge Jackson ordered the Defendants to “immediately develop a plan to reduce and maintain the heat index in the Angola death row tiers at or below 88 degrees Fahrenheit.”
The Court issued several rulings today, including granting in part Plaintiffs’ Motion for Sanctions regarding evidence tampering. The Court went on to order a hearing where it will consider personal sanctions against the attorneys representing the state for their “alarming lack of candor.”
New Orleans non-profit organization The Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) and the law firm Bird Marella, along with attorney Steve Scheckman of the law firm Schiff, Scheckman and White, initiated the case on behalf of the plaintiffs in June 2013, alleging violations of the Eighth Amendment, as well as of federal disability statutes, due to extreme and unsafe temperatures in Angola’s Death Row facility during the summer months. The defendants include the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, its Secretary James LeBlanc, Burl Cain, Warden of Angola and Angela Norwood, Warden of Death Row of the Penitentiary. The plaintiffs are Death Row inmates Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code, and James Magee. The lawsuit sought no monetary damages, instead seeking only that the temperatures be controlled and kept within safe levels.
In a very unusual move, Judge Jackson ordered a full trial on the merits only six weeks after the lawsuit was filed. The case culminated in a two-and-a-half day trial that began August 5th. At trial, Mssrs. Ball, Code, and Magee described their suffering on Louisiana’s Death Row in the summer. Mr. Magee testified that “it feels like a sauna” in the morning and “an oven” by the afternoon. Expert witnesses testified that the conditions inside of the cells would be as hot or hotter than conditions outside, and that heat levels on Death Row would subject even healthy people to the risk of heat-related illness and heatstroke. The danger to Plaintiffs is even greater because they are confined to their cells for 23 hours per day, and because all three have health conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, that are exacerbated by the heat.
Testimony from the defendants established that prison officials installed air conditioning in some portions of the Death Row facility, including the administrative and guards’ offices- and even the execution chamber itself- but as a matter of policy declined to air-condition the living quarters of the inmates.
“We are grateful that the Court has recognized the gravity of the situation that our clients were facing,” said Mercedes Montagnes, Deputy Director of PJI. “This case specifically did not seek money. We only wanted the temperatures to be controlled to prevent serious health risks. The Promise of Justice Initiative stands ready to work with Judge Jackson and the Department of Corrections to ensure that no inmate on Death Row suffers extreme heat that violates the Constitution.”
Nilay U. Vora, an attorney with Bird Marella who handled the case pro bono, added, “When Angola’s leadership were told of the risks faced by Death Row inmates, they buried their heads in the sand like ostriches and refused to correct the problem. We are pleased that Judge Jackson undertook a thorough examination of the issues in this lengthy and well-reasoned decision.”
The Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) is a private, non-profit organization that advocates for criminal justice reform and abolition of the death penalty on behalf of indigent defendants and prisoners who seek fair and equal treatment under the law.
Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks & Lincenberg, P.C. (Bird Marella) is a Los Angeles based law firm acting as co-counsel with PJI.
Schiff, Scheckman & White LLP is a Louisiana law firm with offices in New Orleans, Opelousas, and Baton Rouge.