Death row heat case may head to Supreme Court

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A federal appellate court has refused to re-examine its recent order that a Baton Rouge federal judge consider other remedies, short of air conditioning death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Three ailing condemned inmates claim the extreme heat at the prison threatens their lives.

The Advocate reports a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied requests from the prisoners’ attorneys that either the panel or the full court rehear the case.

Lawyers for Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee have the option of asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.

“We are disappointed with the denial of our petitions and have not yet decided our next step,” said Mercedes Montagnes, one of the inmates’ attorneys.

James Hilburn, an attorney for the state Department of Corrections, said the 5th Circuit correctly turned down the rehearing requests.

In his December 2013 order, Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson did not require the state to air-condition death row, but he said heat indexes there could not exceed 88 degrees Fahrenheit from April until the end of October.

The state complained to the 5th Circuit that Jackson’s order effectively required it to provide air conditioning, something Ball, Code and Magee are not constitutionally entitled to. The state’s court-ordered remediation plan, which the 5th Circuit stayed last summer, called for air conditioning, ice and cool showers.

The 5th Circuit panel on July 8 backed Jackson’s finding that the three prisoners’ constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment was being violated and that something must be done to remedy that violation. But the panel said Jackson needed to rethink how that can be accomplished.

The appeals court panel said possible remedies include redirecting cool air from the guards’ pod on death row into the death-row tiers; providing air conditioning on one of the four tiers for the benefit of inmates at risk for heat-related illness; allowing inmates access to cool showers at least once a day; providing cold drinking water and ice at all times; supplying personal ice containers and individual fans; and installing more ice machines.