BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Supreme Court says the governor has the authority to reject a parole board's commutation recommendation for death row inmate Gerald Ross Pizzuto Jr.
The decision means the state can seek a death warrant for Pizzuto. Once issued, the warrant would set Pizzuto's execution by lethal injection in the next 30 days.
Deborah A. Czuba, supervising attorney for the Capital Habeas Unit of the Federal Defenders of Idaho, said Pizzuto's defense team was “disappointed and devastated” by the ruling. Czuba said she hopes Little takes a closer look at all the reasons the parole commission cited when it recommended clemency.
"Any aggressive pursuit of a death warrant at this point for Mr. Pizzuto would not only be barbaric, but also a clear waste of time, resources, and taxpayer money," Czuba said in a press release. “We believe the Commission of Pardons and Parole made a compassionate and reasoned decision, and that there is still time for Gov. Little to take the wise and moral action to allow Mr. Pizzuto to die a natural death in prison.”
Pizzuto has spent more than three decades on death row after being convicted for the July 1985 slayings of two gold prospectors at a cabin north of McCall. His execution had been scheduled for June 2021, but he asked for clemency because he has terminal bladder cancer, heart disease, diabetes and decreased intellectual function.
The state's Commission of Pardons and Parole voted 4-3 in December to recommend that his death sentence be commuted to life in prison, citing in part the torture and abuse that Pizzuto experienced as a child and his serious health problems. But Idaho Gov. Brad Little rejected that decision, saying the brutal nature of Pizzuto's crimes merited the death sentence.
Little's decision led to an appeal by Pizzuto's public defense team, which claimed the Idaho Constitution did not give the governor the authority to override the recommendation of the parole commission. Pizzuto also said a state law allowing the governor to override the parole commission's decision in some cases violates the state Constitution, and so shouldn't apply. Pizzuto won the case at the lower court level, but the governor appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court.
In an opinion handed down Tuesday afternoon, a majority of justices on the high court said that the state laws and the Constitution are consistent, and noted that Idaho's governor has historically played a significant role in the commutation process. A constitutional amendment passed in 1986 gave the Legislature the power to determine how the executive branch handles commutation power, the justices found.
Justice Joel Horton and Robin Brody wrote a special concurrence, saying that while they disagreed that the governor has the ability to approve or disapprove the commission's recommendation, they still agreed with reversing the lower court's opinion. Horton and Brody said the state law only gives the parole board the power to act in an advisory capacity when it comes to commuting death sentences, which is why the board recommends commutation rather than granting it directly.