Judge lectures state attorneys on La. death row heat issue

Photo provided by U.S. District Court -- Fans blow into cells on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Show caption
Photo provided by U.S. District Court -- Fans blow into cells on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

A federal judge overseeing hot conditions on Louisiana’s death row sternly lectured three attorneys for the state Wednesday but declined to sanction them for their “lack of candor” about awnings and soaker hoses installed in the summer while heat indices were being measured for the court.

Veteran attorney E. Wade Shows and fellow attorneys for the state, Amy McInnis and Jacqueline Wilson, took turns apologizing to Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson.

They acknowledged they should have immediately informed him when they learned Louisiana State Penitentiary officials were considering installing awnings over death row windows and misting walls with water.

Shows told Jackson that Angola officials used the awnings and hoses as a way to calm concerns about conditions on death row, and did not intend to skew temperature data the judge had ordered collected from mid-July to early August of last year.

“I accept the fact that your clients were making good-faith efforts,” the judge said during Wednesday’s hearing, adding he was “deeply troubled, frustrated and disappointed.”

The sanctions Jackson could have imposed included ethics training, reprimand, suspension and even disbarment.

“Next time I will not be so lenient, if it happens again,” the judge warned.

Michael Patterson, who represented the three state attorneys at the hearing, said he appreciated Jackson giving the attorneys the opportunity to explain themselves.

The hearing came in a lawsuit filed in June by three death-row inmates — Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee — who claimed oppressive heat conditions on death row worsened their medical conditions and violated their constitutional rights.

The state is appealing Jackson’s December order that the state devise a plan to reduce heat indices on death row to 88 degrees or less. The state submitted a plan last month that calls for air conditioning and chests filled with ice.

The inmates’ attorneys asked the judge Monday to order the plan’s implementation.

The death-row tiers are only ventilated and heated.

Angola Warden Burl Cain testified in federal court in August that he “messed up” by ordering awnings over death row windows and walls soaked with water amid the litigation, but insisted he did not intend to thwart Jackson’s order to preserve evidence of prison temperatures that could endanger inmates.

Jackson, in his December ruling that the steaming hot conditions on death row constitute cruel and unusual punishment, ordered the state to pay some attorneys’ fees and costs associated with evidentiary and discovery violations.

In that ruling, the judge blasted the state for its “brazen attempt” to suppress the truth regarding death row temperatures and voiced concern for the “alarming lack of candor” displayed by state attorneys.

Jackson reiterated those concerns Wednesday and once again rejected the state attorneys’ argument that U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Riedlinger was made aware at a July 25 settlement conference of the state’s intention to install awnings over death row windows.

“Magistrate Judge Riedlinger is not the issue here,” Jackson said. “I personally found it absolutely insulting” to suggest Riedlinger had the authority to alter Jackson’s order that temperature data be collected for three straight weeks beginning July 15 and preserved.

“If you’re going to change an order, you have to go to the judge who issued the order or to a higher court,” the judge added.

Shows told Jackson that he had “no clue” the awnings would be put up the night of the settlement conference.

“Knowingly violate your order? No sir, we didn’t do that,” Shows assured the judge. “I think everyone acted in good faith. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been done.”

The inmates’ lead attorney, Mercedes Montagnes, who is deputy director of The Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans nonprofit, told Jackson she learned of the awnings from the inmates, not the state’s attorneys.

Data collected by a third-party expert during the three-week testing period in the summer detected heat indices in all death row tiers that topped 104 degrees.