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Gov. Little won’t commute sick death row inmate’s sentence

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 1, 2022

Idaho Gov. Brad Little speaks at a news conference March 13, 2020, at his Statehouse office in Boise.  (Associated Press)
Idaho Gov. Brad Little speaks at a news conference March 13, 2020, at his Statehouse office in Boise. (Associated Press)
Associated Press

Associated Press

BOISE – Idaho’s governor rejected an official recommendation to commute the death sentence of an inmate who is dying of terminal cancer.

Gerald Ross Pizzuto Jr., 65, has been on death row for 35 years 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 2.

The Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole said Thursday it had asked Gov. Brad Little to commute the sentence to life in prison. The vote was 4-3.

In suggesting changing the sentence the panel cited Pizzuto’s “current medical condition and evidence of his decreased intellectual function.”

Pizzuto has bladder cancer, diabetes and heart disease and is confined to a wheelchair. He’s been on hospice care since 2019.

In a letter Thursday afternoon responding to the commission, Little said he would not commute Pizzuto’s sentence, noting the man committed the Idaho slayings shortly after being released from prison in Michigan where he had been convicted of rape.

“The severity Pizzuto’s brutal, senseless, and indiscriminate killing spree strongly warrants against commutation,” Little wrote.

Pizzuto’s attorneys with the Federal Defender Services of Idaho said in a statement they were grateful for the hard work and thoughtfulness of the commission, and had hoped Little would follow the lead of the commissioners “and commit Idaho to a higher ideal by sparing Mr. Pizzuto an unnecessary execution.”

“We are devastated and heartbroken that the Governor, showing no mercy whatsoever, so casually and quickly rejected the Commission’s well-reasoned and thoughtful recommendation that Mr. Pizzuto deserves clemency,” wrote Deborah Czuba, supervising attorney for the Capital Habeas Unit.

Pizzuto’s defense team will continue to pursue other avenues for “preventing the purely vindictive and wasteful execution of a terminally ill old man,” Czuba wrote.

“Mr. Pizzuto has been punished and in pain nearly every day of his miserable life – more than 35 years of it wasting away in an isolated cell on death row. Mercy is justified for the crippled, dying man he is now, and a long time coming for the unloved, tortured boy who fell through the cracks,” she wrote.Clemency requests are rarely granted in the United States, with fewer than two granted each year since 1976 according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Court records show Pizzuto’s life was marred by violence from childhood. Family members offered gruesome testimony that Pizzuto was repeatedly tortured, raped and severely beaten by his stepfather and sometimes by his stepfather’s friends, and he sustained multiple brain injuries.

Pizzuto was camping with two other men near McCall when he encountered 58-year-old Berta Herndon and her 37-year-old nephew Del Herndon, who were prospecting in the area.

Prosecutors said Pizzuto, armed with a .22 caliber rifle, went to the Herndon’s cabin, tied their wrists behind their backs and bound their legs to steal their money. He bludgeoned them both.

Pizzuto is one of eight people on Idaho’s death row.

Idaho has executed three people since capital punishment was resumed nationwide in 1976.

Keith Eugene Wells was executed in 1994, Paul Ezra Rhodes was executed in 2011 and Richard Albert Leavitt was executed in 2012.

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