Dying Idaho inmate asks U.S. Supreme Court to review case, intervene before execution

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Attorneys for a dying Idaho man facing execution in June want the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case, including a claim that a co-defendant’s lawyers brokered a secret deal with the judge in 1986.

Gerald Ross Pizzuto Jr., 65, was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder in 1986 in the killings of Berta Herndon and her nephew, Del Herndon, in Idaho County. The two were tied up and bludgeoned with a hammer in a cabin outside of McCall. Berta Herndon died from the hammer blows, and Del Herndon died after he was shot in the head.

Pizzuto and two other men — James Rice and William Odom — were initially arrested and charged in connection with the deaths. Rice and Odom later pleaded guilty to lesser charges and testified against Pizzuto.

In a petition filed to the Supreme Court earlier this week, Pizzuto’s attorneys say that in January 1986, Rice’s attorneys met with Judge George Reinhardt and prosecutor Henry Boomer at a restaurant to broker a deal. The deal meant Rice would spend no more than 15 years in prison if he placed all of the blame for the murders on Pizzuto, the petition says.

During Pizzuto’s trial three months later, Rice testified that it was Pizzuto’s idea to rob the Herndons, adding that he was not promised leniency at his own sentencing. A day after Pizzuto was sentenced to death, Rice was sentenced to prison by Reinhardt.

The petition says Rice acknowledged the secret deal in 2005, and Pizzuto’s attorneys later found notes from Rice’s lawyers that detailed the restaurant meeting. Rice reportedly said the crimes were Odom’s idea.

During a 1986 interview between Idaho County investigators and Lene Odom, William’s wife, she claimed that Rice fatally shot Del Herndon after he was bludgeoned by Pizzuto, saying that Rice “shot (Del Herndon) and put him out of his misery.” A 1991 ruling from the Idaho Supreme Court also says that Rice shot Del Herndon. The three took money from the Herndon’s cabin and buried the two in shallow graves.

Both Rice and Odom served 12 years in prison before being released. According to Pizzuto’s attorneys, Rice is currently in a California prison on an unrelated charge, and Odom died in 2014.

Pizzuto has been in prison for over three decades and faces a potential execution date of June 2.

As a young boy, Pizzuto was sexually and physically abused repeatedly by his stepfather, according to a clemency petition sent to the Idaho Pardons and Parole Commission. Pizzuto’s siblings told investigators that they were all beaten and raped, but Pizzuto suffered more than the others. In addition to the beatings, Pizzuto suffered brain damage from a fall down stairs at 2 years old, and a motorcycle accident at 14. He struggled in school and showed signs of slow mental development as a child.

Medical files attached to Pizzuto’s clemency petition to commute his death sentence show that Pizzuto has been in hospice care for more than a year, and he suffers from terminal bladder cancer, Type 2 diabetes and chronic heart disease that has caused heart attacks, among other ailments. He was described by attorneys as a feeble man who could die at any time and poses no threat.

The clemency petition will be reviewed by parole board commissioners during an executive session on Tuesday, May 18, just two weeks before Pizzuto’s scheduled execution. The commission will make a recommendation and take the ruling to the governor’s office.

Pizzuto is being housed at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution near Boise. All Idaho executions take place in the prison’s F-block.

Including Pizzuto, there are seven men and one woman on death row in Idaho.

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