Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Files Suit: Death Row Too Hot

Nathaniel Code, too hot for death row.

Nathaniel Code, too hot for death row.

Three death row inmates are suing the Louisiana Department of Corrections, Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc and prison wardens Burl Cain and Angela Norwood over what they call the “appalling and extreme” heat on the death row of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola after one of the plantations purchased to establish the prison in the late 1890s. The suit contends that authorities have not met the requirement to treat death row inmates humanely.

The suit was filed on behalf of the inmates by The Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans-based advocacy group for poor inmates.

It may be noted that all three inmates find themselves on death row for excellent reasons: Elzie Ball for killing a delivery man; James Magee for killing his wife and son, 5; and serial killer Nathaniel Code for a series of eight murders committed between 1984 and 1987.

Code’s victims died pretty horribly: Debra Ford, 25, was bound with electrical cord, stabbed 18 times and nearly decapitated when he cut her throat. In 1985 Code entered the Chaney home killing in similar fashion Vivian Chaney, 34, Chaney’s daughter Carlitha, 15, brother Jerry Culbert, 25, and boyfriend Billy Harris, 28. Everyone in the home was mentally retarded, visually impaired, or both to some degree except Harris. Finally Code killed his own grandfather William Code, 74, and two children, Eric Williams, 8, and Joe Robinson, 12.

Code was sentenced to death in 1989. Now 24 years later, the diabetic, obese Code, who also suffers from hepatitis, says that the conditions on death row violate his constitutional rights.

According to the suit, the current Angola death row facility was built in 2008 and “is equipped with air ducts attached to a cooling system. On information and belief, the entire Death Row Facility is outfitted with ductwork for climate control. The areas of the Death Row Facility which house visitation rooms, guard towers, and administrative offices are routinely air conditioned. The Death Row Facility tiers (the “Death Row tiers”) that are occupied by the inmates have no climate control other than fans.”

Debra Ford’s older sister Linda Logan commented, “He’s got some gall, suing and complaining he’s too hot–well, my sister is too dead.”

Specifically the suit says that in the summer the temperature in the poorly ventilated cells often exceeds 95 degrees. Then they switch to NOAA’s Heat Index, which combines temperature with relative humidity to arrive at how hot it feels, also called the apparent temperature. On that scale, the suit alleges that in the summer of 2012 the heat index on death row reached 103 degrees every day in August and 126 degrees on 85 days between May and August. Finally on one summer day in 2011 when the outside humidity was 100 percent and the temperature was 100 degrees, the heat index inside death row would have been 195 degrees, although NOAA counsels that the index may yield meaningless results at such extremes. For the sake of comparison, 195 degrees is the ideal water temperature for brewing coffee. During such hot days the plaintiffs say that the bars on the cells feel hot to the touch and the cold water in the showers comes out of the pipes “scalding hot.”

The defendants named in the suit had no comment, though readers comments on articles about the suit are numerous. Many are what one would expect: anger, outrage, and a very few are sympathetic. One particular comment sums up most reader comments nicely:

Reader comment on inmate's lawsuit.

Reader comment on inmate lawsuit.

Read the suit:

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