Judge approves air cooling plan for death row

The state’s court-ordered plan to cool down death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary was approved by a federal judge Friday who also ordered the immediate implementation of the plan, which includes installing air conditioning.

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, also appointed a special master to oversee the plan’s implementation and monitor conditions on death row.

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections said it will ask a federal appellate court in New Orleans to put Jackson’s order on hold while it is appealed.

“Given the significant issues involved in this litigation which have far-reaching effects on many correctional institutions in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, the Department intends to seek a thorough review of the trial court’s decision with the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals,” DPSC spokeswoman Pam Laborde said in a written statement.

“Further, the Department intends to ask the court of appeals to stay the trial court’s order until after all appeals have been decided,” she added.

In his December order, Jackson mandated that heat indexes — or how hot it actually feels — not exceed 88 degrees on death row.

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.

The death-row tiers are only heated and ventilated.

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

“We’re still focused on getting relief for our people as quickly as possible,” Mercedes Montagnes, one of the inmates’ attorneys, said Friday. Montagnes is deputy director of The Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans.

In his order appointing Lafayette civil lawyer Paul J. Hebert as special master, Jackson said the state must record temperature, humidity and heat index data from each death-row tier every two hours from June 1 through Oct. 31 and report the data to Hebert weekly.

Hebert will report his findings to Jackson every 30 days, beginning July 1.

“The Special Master shall tour the death row tiers on a monthly basis, or whenever deemed necessary by the Special Master, to confirm Defendants are complying with all aspects of the Court’s Ruling and Order,” the judge wrote Friday.

Jackson said Hebert has the power to impose sanctions other than contempt of court and to recommend contempt sanctions.

Hebert’s compensation, in accordance with the Prison Reform Litigation Reform Act, will be paid with funds “appropriated to the Judiciary,” the judge noted.

If Hebert hires or appoints a paralegal to assist him in completing his court-assigned tasks, the paralegal’s bill must be paid by the state defendants, the judge said.

Hebert, of the Lafayette law firm Ottinger Hebert LLC, was selected over Loyola University New Orleans School of Law professors William Quigley and M. Isabel Medina.

Ball, Code and Magee claim the sweltering death-row heat exacerbated their medical conditions and violated their constitutional rights. Their suit alleged heat indexes on death row reached 172 degrees in 2012 and 195 degrees in 2011.

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

Magee was convicted for the 2007 shotgun murders of his estranged wife, Adrienne Magee, and their 5-year-old son, Zach, on a street in the Tall Timbers subdivision north of Mandeville.

Ball was found guilty of fatally shooting beer deliveryman Ben Scorsone during the 1996 armed robbery of a lounge in Gretna.

Code was condemned to die for the 1985 murders of four people at a house in Shreveport. He drowned Vivian Chaney in her bathtub; stabbed and slashed to death Chaney’s 17-year-old daughter, Carlitha; and shot to death Vivian Chaney’s brother, Jerry Culbert, and her boyfriend, Billy Joe Harris.