Lawsuits often contain exaggerated claims, but not this time.
There is no contradicting Mercedes Montagnes when she avers her clients are at risk of death. Perhaps you will find that less shocking when I tell you they all live on death row. You might even figure that’s the whole idea.
But we have pretty much given up executions, and the backlog of the condemned in Louisiana currently stands at more than 80. The threat of which Montagnes’ clients complain is not posed by a lethal needle.
Death row has nothing to commend it, but at least nobody there ever says, “It’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.” The heat there is so intense, three litigious inmates claim, that “serious harm, including permanent injury and even death” may result.
Last summer, the heat index reached 120 degrees on 85 days, and occasionally went as high as 195. How many of the inmates are Republicans is unknown, but they will hope the global warming deniers are right.
The plaintiffs all have hypertension and other ailments that render them particularly susceptible. Elzie Ball, 60, has diabetes, and Nathaniel Code, 57, hepatitis. Both are obese. James Magee, 35, has high cholesterol and depression.
Their plight won’t be breaking many hearts in Louisiana because only perpetrators of the foulest murders wind up in their shoes these days. Well, the occasional innocent man does too, but there is no evidence that any of these three were wrongly convicted.
Code killed eight people, including three kids, while Magee, having shot his wife and 5-year-old son to death, turned the gun on his two daughters, but they survived. Ball, who was in the middle of robbing a bar, murdered a beer delivery man who happened by.
If death row in the summer is hot as hell, that will not strike many people as inappropriate. Few are going to lie awake nights because convicts choose to sleep on a concrete floor that is “slightly cooler than their beds.”
As for “drinking water contaminated with debris,” the populace may console itself with the thought that it probably won’t kill anyone. Perhaps convicts could pour it over their heads to cool off, since, on the rare occasions they get to take a shower, the water can be scalding.
Such sentiments are unworthy. These wretches are going to suffer the rest of their days regardless, so the rest of us might as well display a little humanity.
According to the suit, although air conditioning ducts were built into the entire death house, only the offices, guard towers and visiting areas are cooled. Convicts spend 23 hours a day behind bars that become too hot to touch, while cinder block walls radiate heat.
Their attorneys say Warden Burl Cain has airily dismissed their complaints, and now they want the courts to find that death row temperatures are unconstitutional. There will be howls of protest if they prevail.
It is a quaint notion that cruel and unusual punishment consists of making convicts sweat while they await what we must evidently regard as the mild and unexceptional experience of being put to death.
The lawsuit does not ask that the air be turned on in the convict tiers, only that the heat index be maintained at no more than 88 degrees and that clean water, ice and cooling showers be laid on.
Meanwhile, if death is to bring the inmates any relief, it probably won’t come at the hands of the executioner. The last convict executed in Louisiana, Gerald Bordelon, submitted voluntarily in 2010. We haven’t dispatched one against his will since Leslie Dale Martin in 2002. If the death row backlog is ever to be cleared, sickness and old age must do it.
The case for abolishing the death penalty grows stronger with our reluctance to carry it out. Running death row, and fighting appeals for decades, costs much more than giving all first-degree murderers life in the first place. No need to debate the morality of capital punishment. It is utterly pointless to keep it on the books when death row inmates’ biggest concern is the long-range weather forecast.
James Gill can be contacted at jgill@theadvo