Attorney fees at issue as lawsuit continues over 'cruel and unusual' heat on La. death row

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NEW ORLEANS — Attorneys for three condemned killers who filed suit over hot conditions on Louisiana's death row are asking a federal judge to make the state pay more than three-quarters of a million dollars in fees and costs.

U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson in December said the heat on death row constituted cruel and unusual punishment. He also indicated that the inmates' lawyers would be entitled to attorneys' fees.

In May, Jackson approved a remediation plan including air conditioning, providing chests filled with ice and allowing inmates once-daily cold showers. An appeals court delayed implementation of that plan with a stay order in June.

State lawyers argue that the request for attorney fees and costs violates that stay order, according to a story on the dispute in The Advocate (http://bit.ly/1qaaeZZ). Lawyers for the inmates say the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals only stayed implementation of the remediation plan, not all proceedings in the case.

State lawyers are calling on Jackson to either strike the inmates' attorneys' motion for fees and costs or hold it in abeyance until the 5th Circuit rules on all appeals in the case.

Jackson on June 2 had directed the attorneys for death row inmates Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee to file their motion for fees and costs by July 14, which the attorneys did.

The $687,198 in attorneys' fees sought by 10 attorneys for the three inmates represents more than 3,700 hours of work at hourly rates ranging from $85 to $550.

"The hours expended by Plaintiffs' counsel were reasonable in light of the amount of work required to litigate this case," the inmates' lead lawyer, Mercedes Montagnes, says in the motion. "The unusual and complex nature of this litigation demanded exceptional intellect, creativity, and advocacy skill in advancing Plaintiffs' claims."

Montagnes, deputy director of The Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans, is requesting more than $236,000 in attorney fees — the most of any of the 10 lawyers. The second-highest amount is nearly $170,000 by fellow Promise of Justice attorney Elizabeth Compa.

The motion notes that the inmates' attorneys have been representing the inmates on a purely contingent basis and have not been paid to date.

"Absent the ability to recover fees for their time, it would be very difficult for attorneys to take on cases seeking to advance the rights of indigent and marginalized people," Montagnes argues in the motion. "Attorneys who seek to vindicate fundamental constitutional rights on behalf of disadvantaged groups such as prisoners should be fully compensated for that work."

James Hilburn, an attorney for state corrections officials, said the state will respond to the motion to set attorneys' fees and costs if and when a court orders it to do so.


Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

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