Luke Fontana started his law practice as a civil rights attorney working as a staff attorney in the Algiers projects for New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation in 1968 – 1970.
He was responsible for the desegregation of the State Industrial School for Colored Youth notoriously known as Scotlandville. This lawsuit not only resulted in the desegregation of the juvenile institutions in the state of Louisiana in 1968 – 1969, but also resulted in the equalization of funding by the Louisiana State Legislature to the juvenile institutions in the state of Louisiana.
In hearings before United States District Judge Alvin Rubin, Mr. Fontana described Scotlandville as a brutal prison. And the white juvenile institutions as country clubs.
Mr. Fontana became well known as a penal reform attorney. In a class action lawsuit filed in 1969 against New Orleans Mayor Victor Schiro, Mr. Fontana represented, all prisoners in the notorious Orleans Parish Prison, alleging violation of the United States Constitution prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. This was the first penal lawsuit, appointing a Special Master, and was written up by the American Bar Association.
In this class action lawsuit, United States District Court Judge Herbert Christenberry ruled in Mr. Fontana’s favor, and ordered the city of New Orleans to improve the conditions of Orleans Parish prison, or face a contempt of court citation Mr. Fontana litigated this case for a period of over 12 years, filing numerous contempt of court violations against every New Orleans mayor, from Mayor Moon Landrieu to Mayor Dutch Morial.
Mr. Fontana was also one of the attorneys involved in the class action lawsuit against the Louisiana State Prison, known as Angola, alleging violations of the United States Constitution for cruel and unusual punishment, and seeking relief from these elements of torture.
The United States District Court Judge in Baton Rouge granted Mr. Fontana’s plaintiffs an injunction, prohibiting the state of Louisiana from inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on the prisoners of Angola the majority of whom were African-Americans.
Mr. Fontana was well known for his representation of New Orleans police brutality cases against African-Americans. His most famous case was his handling of the Charles Cheatham police killing of Mr. Cheatham on Bourbon Street in April of 1975 by New Orleans police officer Stephen Reboul.
The jury in Louisiana Civil District Court in New Orleans, Judge Tom Early presiding, granted Sheryl Cheatham, widow of Charles Cheatham, and her young son, an award of $619,000
This was the first time any large award was granted against the New Orleans Police Department for killing an African-American. It was the first time in New Orleans, the NOPD blue line had ever been cracked. Mr. Fontana played a key part in cracking this case. At the last second on the second day of the jury trial, Mr. Fontana was able to produce Ronnie Lee Watson, a key witness to the cold blooded murder shooting of Charles Cheatham by Stephen Reboul.
By his own testimony, Ronnie Lee Watson testified that members of the NOPD threatened to kill him, if he was ever discovered again in the French Quarter of New Orleans
One witness that repeated the police killing storyline was found dead in Lake Pontchtrain 7 days later with five bullet holes in his head.
In spite of all these obstacles, Fontana pulled Ronnie Lee Watson out of a hat, and broke the NOPD BLUE LINE.
This award of $619,000 was reversed in the Louisiana. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, Judge Peter Beer residing.
Peter Beer was an ex New Orleans city councilman, and it became evident his decision was likely to protect the purse strings of the city of New Orleans, whom he once represented as a city councilman.
The Louisiana State Supreme Court, Judge Pascal Calogero presiding, reversed this unfair and prejudicial decision of Peter Beer’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals
After appeals, writs to Louisiana State Supreme Court, accumulating legal interest, the final judgment in the Charles Cheatham case came out to $800,000, which the taxpayers of New Orleans were obligated to pay.
In spite of this, Stephan Reboul remained on the New Orleans Police Department under the administration of Mayor Ernest Dutch Morial, the first Afro American elected mayor of the city of New Orleans.
NOPD officer, and now accused killer cop Stephen Reboul, was part of the New Orleans Police Department raid that killed four Afro American Algiers residents. This raid is known as the Algiers massacre. Steven Reboul shot Cheryl Singleton, while she was in the bathtub with her 10 year old child nearby.
After retiring for several years, Mr. Fontana is presently renewing his license to practice law under the jurisdiction of the Louisiana State Bar Association.