Attorneys for Idaho death row inmate say Gov. Little’s clemency denial violated law

·3 min read
Idaho Public Television / Screenshot

Days after Idaho Gov. Brad Little rejected the state parole board’s recommendation to reduce an inmate’s death penalty sentence to one of life in prison, lawyers for the inmate are questioning whether Little had the power to do so.

In a motion filed Monday, attorneys for Gerald Pizzuto, a convicted double murderer with multiple medical conditions, said Little’s denial to take Pizzuto off death row violated the Idaho Constitution.

“The Idaho Constitution gives the governor no say in the commutation process, and Mr. Pizzuto’s attorneys are seeking to stop the state from pursuing a death warrant until the legal questions surrounding the governor’s intervention are fully resolved,” the Federal Defender Services of Idaho said a statement Monday.

The Idaho Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

The Commission of Pardons and Parole on Thursday in a 4-3 vote recommended clemency for Pizzuto, 65, who has late-stage bladder cancer and has been in hospice care for about two years.

Pizzuto was on death row for more than 35 years and was scheduled to be killed by lethal injection in June. His execution was delayed when the parole board granted him a clemency hearing, which took place in November.

Under state statute, Little had 30 days after the parole board’s recommendation to decide whether to maintain the current death sentence. Little immediately moved to reject the recommendation Thursday, the same day it was issued.

In its motion to postpone the issuance of Pizzuto’s death warrant, the legal nonprofit argued that Article IV of Idaho’s Constitution gives the parole board final say over commutations, where the governor has the power to grant “respites or reprieves.”

It argued that the state law Little cited in his denial of the commutation is in violation of the Idaho Constitution. Little cited Idaho Code 20-1016, which gives the governor power to approve or deny commutations for offenses that carry a maximum penalty of life in prison or the death penalty.

Pizzuto convicted of two murders in 1985

Pizzuto was convicted of the murders of Berta and Del Herndon, two gold prospectors who were visiting Idaho County in the summer of 1985. They were each brutally struck multiple times in the head with a hammer before they died at a remote cabin north of McCall.

The parole board said its recommended reduced sentence attempts to grant mercy over Pizzuto’s failing health.

“This decision is not based on any doubt or question about Mr. Pizzuto’s guilt or the horrific nature of his crimes,” the parole board said in a statement. “Mr. Pizzuto has served 35 years in prison and his physical condition, as well as the fact that he will never be released from prison, leaves him as very little threat to others.”

Little’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. But in a statement last week, Little said Pizzuto’s “brutal, senseless and indiscriminate killing spree strongly warrants against commutation.”

“Therefore, I respectfully deny the commission’s recommendation so that the lawful and just sentences for the murders of Berta and Del (Herndon) can be fully carried out as ordered by the court,” Little said.