The bench trial over high heat indexes at Louisiana’s Death Row ended in early August. Summer ended six weeks ago. A decision has yet to be announced as to whether the hot cells constitute cruel and unusual punishment. But a fiery war of words continues between opposing sides in the dispute.
Attorneys with a New Orleans nonprofit, The Promise of Justice Initiative, continue to press for court-ordered sanctions against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections for the alleged alteration or destruction of evidence in the case.
That allegation was voiced before, during and after the bench trial in the court of Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson. The motion for sanctions followed an admission by Burl Cain, warden over the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, that he ordered installation of awnings over some Death Row windows and use of soaker hoses on some Death Row walls.
Jackson ruled earlier that no such changes could be made on Death Row during a three-week period in which a court-appointed contractor monitored temperatures at the facility.
“We messed up,” Cain testified at the trial. “Our intentions were good.”
The suit by three condemned inmates alleges that Death Row heat indexes peaked in 2012 at 172 degrees Fahrenheit and reached 195 degrees in 2011.
Temperatures recorded this summer by court order were used by the inmates’ attorneys and experts to project that some heat indexes ranged from 104.5 degrees to 107.8 degrees. Those attorneys argue heat indexes above 88 degrees should not be permitted on Death Row.
“Defendants appear to claim that they were honest, upfront, and forthright about changes made to the (Death Row) tiers,” inmate attorney Mercedes Montagnes wrote the judge in a document filed Oct. 10. “Not so.”
Montagnes added prison officials did not reveal their installation of window awnings until after they were asked to confirm rumors of the remedial measures.
Prison officials did not acknowledge their use of soaker hoses until two days later, Montagnes told Jackson.
In an earlier filing, Jacqueline B. Wilson, attorney for the Corrections Department, urged the judge not to punish her client. Wilson said Montagnes and the other inmate attorneys were notified by email on a Friday at 4:39 p.m. that awnings had been installed hours earlier.
Four days later, Wilson wrote Jackson, the inmate attorneys were notified by email that an effort to cool Death Row walls with soaker hoses failed because of insufficient water pressure.
“They did not destroy any evidence,” Wilson said of prison officials. She urged the judge not to punish the department or its officials.
Montagnes argued that corrections officials intended to alter the results of the temperature readings and that those readings “were likely suppressed.”
Montagnes won one dispute with Wilson in September, when Wilson asked Jackson for permission to remove the window awnings that had been installed in July.
Should the judge conclude that the awnings were beneficial to inmates, Montagnes argued, “the appropriate action is to maintain the awnings in place for the foreseeable future.”
The judge denied the request by prison officials to remove the awnings.
Elzie Ball, 60, is one of the inmates who sued prison officials. Ball has been on Death Row since August 1997 for the fatal shooting of beer deliveryman Ben Scorsone during the armed robbery of a lounge in Gretna, Jefferson Parish.
James C. Magee, 35, is a second plaintiff in the case. Magee was convicted for the April 2007 shotgun murders of his estranged wife, 28-year-old Adrienne Magee, and their 5-year-old son, Zach, in a subdivision north of Mandeville in St. Tammany Parish.
The third plaintiff is Nathaniel Code, 57, who is on Death Row for the 1985 murders of four people at a house in Shreveport, Caddo Parish.
Code was convicted for the bathtub drowning of 34-year-old Vivian Chaney; the stabbing and slashing murder of Chaney’s 17-year-old daughter, Carlitha; and the shooting deaths of Chaney’s brother, Jerry Culbert, and her boyfriend, Billy Joe Harris.