Don Paradis will live, Gov. Phil Batt ruled Friday.
After a week spent meeting with both sides in the convicted murderer’s case and members of the Commission of Pardons and Parole, Batt announced his decision in a hastily called news conference.
“I do not think the death penalty should be imposed if there is any doubt about the guilt of the accused person,” Batt said. “In this case, there is some element of doubt.”
Paradis has maintained his innocence in the death of 19-year-old Kimberly Ann Palmer, whose body was found near Post Falls in 1980. Another Death Row inmate, Thomas Gibson, told the commission last week that he beat and choked Palmer and Paradis wasn’t involved.
Last Friday, the commission voted 3-2 to recommend to Batt that Paradis’ life be spared, and his sentence commuted to life without parole. That left the governor with the final call.
Sherry Britz, Palmer’s mother, told a Boise TV station shortly after the decision, “If life in prison without possibility of parole means what it says, then we can live with that and go on with our lives.”
She had pleaded with both the commission and Batt to let the death sentence go forward, to spare her and her family from repeatedly reliving the crime that took her young daughter’s life. Paradis has filed numerous appeals in the years since his conviction, which was upheld 3-2 by the Idaho Supreme Court.
His attorneys argued that evidence never presented at his trial - including Gibson’s confession and a bloodless wound on Palmer’s body that threw into question when and where the murder occurred - wasn’t considered in any of his appeals. Only at the clemency hearing was it all finally presented.
“To have executed Don Paradis would have been an absolute injustice,” said Bill Mauk, the Boise attorney who represented Paradis for free for the past nine years. “We don’t kill people in our society where there is doubt about their guilt or innocence.”
Mauk was advised of the decision just before Batt announced it, and spoke with Paradis on the phone for 15 minutes. From the stark maximum-security prison that’s been his home for 16 years, Paradis sounded elated and full of life, Mauk said.
“He told me, he said, ‘You might have to think about becoming a Republican now, Mauk.”’
Mauk is the head of the Idaho Democratic Party. Batt is a Republican.
Batt said he started leaning toward upholding the commission’s recommendation Thursday evening, but continued meeting with people involved with the case Friday. The last person he spoke with was Camille Tillinghast, chairman of the commission, who told him in a 40-minute closed-door meeting that there were too many unanswered questions to put Paradis to death.
“We can’t take a man’s life and live with that,” she said after the meeting. “What if we’re wrong?”
Tillinghast also said Paradis’ case was unique compared with the 19 other murderers on Idaho’s Death Row. She would not even consider granting a clemency hearing to any of the others, she said.
“I support the death penalty. But if we make a mistake in a case so fraught with questions, we run the risk with the public of losing the death penalty as a sanction.”
Idaho Attorney General Al Lance, who had pushed hard for the execution to proceed, issued a low-key statement Friday saying he respected Batt’s decision.
“It was one of the toughest decisions our governor has yet had to make,” said Lance, a Republican.
He added that he still believes firmly in the original jury verdict and in the state’s position throughout the many unsuccessful appeals.
Batt said he wasn’t convinced that the murder occurred in Washington, rather than Idaho, as Paradis’ attorneys have argued. But he was persuaded that there was doubt and conflicting evidence.
The governor also mentioned the bloodless wound. Medical experts for both sides agreed during the clemency hearing that the wound had to have been inflicted well after death.
That conflicted with the prosecution’s theory that Palmer was killed where her body was found. Paradis and two other men were only at the site for 30 minutes; Paradis’ presence there was the evidence that tied him to the crime.
Paradis said he simply helped dispose of the body after others had murdered Palmer.
“Life in prison without the possibility of parole is not a light sentence,” Batt said. “Donald Paradis has admitted that he was involved in this sordid crime. I think he should spend the rest of his life in prison.”
At 3 p.m. Friday, Batt’s office said the governor probably wouldn’t reach a decision until after the long weekend. Then at 5 p.m., he announced a 5:30 news conference.
Pastor Tom Blackburn, who has visited Paradis every week for more than 12 years and is convinced of his innocence, spent all of Friday in a waiting area at Batt’s office, praying. He met briefly with the governor, and left only at lunchtime, to fry hamburgers at an end-of-the-year picnic at his church school. Then he returned to await the decision.
Asked what prompted him to come to the governor’s office Friday, Blackburn said, “I just felt like it was time.”
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.