NY Times Investigates Extreme Heat and 8th Amendment Violations

As July 2016 breaks records all across the southern United States for extreme heat, many jails and prisons across the south are still without temperature control for incarcerated people - putting the lives of many prone to heat related conditions at risk. The New York Times profiles this issue in Alan Blinder's latest piece, interviewing PJI Attorney, Mercedes Montagnes.

“It’s almost impossible for courts to deny the constitutional violation because extreme heat undoubtedly exposes individuals to substantial risk of serious harm,” said Mercedes Montagnes, a lawyer for three inmates with health issues who challenged conditions on Louisiana’s death row. “Now what we’re grappling with is the remedy.”


Death Row Exoneree John Thompson Calls for Federal Investigation of Orleans District Attorney's Office

Death row exonoree, John Thompson, held a press conference yesterday at Resurrection After Exoneration to announce the filing of his complaint calling for a federal investigation of Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office, starting with former ADA Jim Williams.

The petition, filed with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, demands an investigation of “individual and systemic abuses of prosecutorial power in Orleans Parish” in light of the office’s “disturbing pattern of lawlessness, corruption, and prosecutorial misconduct”.

PJI Deputy Director, Mercedes Montagnes, PJI Board Member and Loyola Law School Professor, Andrea Armstrong, and Orleans Parish Chief District Defender, Derwyn Bunton, accompanied John Thompson in person at the press conference. New Orleans Innocence Project Director, Emily Maw, Skyped in to speak on the disproportionally high rate of wrongful convictions out of New Orleans.

John Thompson explained how lucky he felt to have been on death row because it meant he was afforded an attorney to continue working on his case until his innocence was uncovered. He claimed there are hundreds of others just like him rotting away in Louisiana prisons who have no one looking into their cases. Mercedes Montagnes spoke about the irony of John Thompson’s gratitude for being sentenced to death given the difficult conditions of being housed in solitary conferment and having limited contact with family members. Having endured these isolating conditions, and surviving seven execution warrants, John Thompson considers himself a victim of attempted murder. John Thompson feels that he has no recourse to obtain justice for the crimes committed against him. He is hopeful that the DOJ will step in to create an accountability structure for the Orleans prosecutor’s office. 

Read more about the press conference on Fox8,, The Advocate, and WWTL

Delaware Supreme Court Holds the Death Penalty as Unconstitutional

The Delaware Supreme Court issued an opinion on August 2, 2016, holding the death penalty unconstitutional. The Delaware Supreme Court rejected the state statute that allowed for imposition of a death sentence based upon a non-unanimous jury verdict, and under circumstances in which the State failed to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that death was the appropriate punishment.  In issuing the opinion, the Court referenced the Amicus Brief of The Promise of Justice Initiative, New Orleans, Louisiana, Amicus Curiae for the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice,  noting:

Rauf is joined by amicus curiae, who echo his arguments, but who also make  a more fundamental argument, which is that there is no more fundamentally  important role for a jury fairly drawn from the community than determining  whether a defendant should live or die.  They read Hurst as recognizing a more essential consideration that has been obscured in the complexity of the  post-Furman world, which is that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury has perhaps  its most powerful importance when the question is whether the defendant should  live or die.

Rauf at 58-59.    The Promise of Justice Initiative Brief on behalf of Rauf is attached below.  PJI and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute provided the amicus brief in part due to the racial origins of Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury rule.  Louisiana is one of the few states that allow a non-unanimous juries in non-capital cases.  

The Rauf opinion calls into question the continued legitimacy of non-unanimous verdicts.  Louisiana’s death penalty statute has a similar problem to Delaware’s as it fails to require the jury to determine beyond a reasonable doubt, that death is the appropriate punishment.  


Download this file (Rauf - CHHIRJ - Amicus Brief (Time Stamped).pdf)PJI- Rauf Amicus Brief

Victory at the United States Supreme Court for Jabari Williams

On June 20th, PJI earned a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court for their client, Jabari Williams, who was wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder in New Orleans in 2012 following a trial marred with error.

In reversing the decisions below, the Supreme Court took particular concern with the Louisiana courts' treatment of Mr. Williams's claim that the Orleans Parish District Attorney had discriminated on the basis of race in selecting the jury, sending a strong reminder that "a Louisiana court, like any other state or federal court, is bound by this Court's interpretation of federal law."

Unfortunately, Mr. WIlliams' case is just the latest instance--following their recent decisions in Smith v. Cain and Wearry v. Cain--in which the U.S. Supreme Court has been forced to intervene to remedy Louisiana courts' indifference to indigent persons' rights. But the Court's decision on Monday is nevertheless an important victory for Mr. Williams and criminal defendants everywhere, who should never stand trial before a jury selected in a racially discriminatory manner.

Congratulations to Mr. Williams!