Court seeks 'special master' to cool down death row

Special master to monitor compliance

Two New Orleans law professors and a civil lawyer from Lafayette told a federal judge Wednesday they feel qualified to oversee implementation of the state’s proposed plan to cool down death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

William Quigley and M. Isabel Medina, faculty members at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law, and Paul J. Hebert, of the Lafayette law firm of Ottinger Hebert LLC, also testified they’re capable of monitoring the state’s compliance with the judge’s order that heat indexes on death row — or how hot it actually feels — don’t top 88 degrees.

Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson, who toured the Angola prison last summer and ruled in December that heat indexes recorded on death row amount to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, said he’ll appoint either Quigley, Medina or Hebert as special master in the case within the next few days.

“This is a tough decision,” the judge said at the end of Wednesday’s hearing, noting each candidate is well qualified.

Jackson had called on attorneys for the state and several death-row inmates to submit candidates for the special master’s post. Quigley, Medina and Hebert are essentially the three finalists. None of them has experience as a special master.

The state is appealing the judge’s Dec. 19 ruling.

In February, the state proposed lowering the summer heat inside death row by adding air conditioning, providing chests filled with ice and allowing inmates once-daily cold showers.

Attorneys for death-row inmates Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee — who sued the state in June — replied in March that the plan proposes an adequate remedy for the violation of the prisoners’ constitutional rights, and they urged Jackson to order its implementation.

Quigley, a human rights and civil rights activist who has sued the state on many occasions, and Medina, who has taught the Eighth Amendment to her students, both have been at Loyola since 1991.

Quigley testified he views a special master as “an extension of the court” and said he would “make sure that the letter of the law is enforced” if he is selected.

Medina said she has never been involved in litigation against the state or the Department of Corrections.

“I think I would be a fair and impartial person,” she said.

Hebert, who graduated from LSU Law School in 1975, testified his legal experience includes insurance defense, personal injury, commercial development, child sex abuse, and oil and gas litigation.

He is a certified mediator and licensed arbitrator.

Nilay Vora, one of the death-row inmates’ attorneys, told Jackson the special master should make regular visits to Angola in addition to monitoring the data recorded at the prison.

James Hilburn, an attorney for the state, said the state will foot the cost of the special master.

The death-row tiers are only heated and ventilated.

The inmates’ lawsuit claims the sweltering heat exacerbated their medical conditions and violated their constitutional rights.

The suit alleged heat indices on death row reached 172 degrees in 2012 and 195 degrees in 2011.

The state contends the inmates have not suffered adverse health effects due to their conditions of confinement.