by Ruth Brown and Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
Gerald Pizzuto Jr., 65, has been on death row in Idaho for more than 35 years after he was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder. The Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole met Tuesday to consider commuting his sentence from death to life in prison after he narrowly avoided execution last summer.
Pizzuto was convicted in the 1985 deaths of Berta Herndon and her nephew Delbert Herndon outside of McCall. His two co-defendants, William Odom and James Rice, were given lesser sentences for their roles in the crime.
The commission will issue a recommendation to Gov. Brad Little, who will make the ultimate decision on whether to grant Pizzuto a commutation if one is recommended. The governor cannot constitutionally grant a commutation without the commission’s recommendation.
Pizzuto’s sisters told the commission that he is intellectually impaired from repeated child abuse at the hands of their stepfather. Most of the hearing centered around graphic descriptions of their horrific upbringing and of Pizzuto’s various crimes.
“We ask for mercy, and we realize that mercy is not an easy task,” said Pizzuto’s attorney, federal public defender Deborah Czuba.
Deputy Attorney General LaMont Anderson argued on behalf of the state that Pizzuto has not shown remorse for his convictions in Idaho or in other states, saying that Pizzuto continues to lie about the events and his past “sadistical” actions.
Anderson also said that Pizzuto’s death sentence has already been reviewed by state and federal courts more times than any other death sentence case in Idaho.
The commission allowed Pizzuto to speak to the clemency request in his own words. They noted that his written application doesn’t describe remorse, the impacts of his illnesses, or why he should receive clemency.
“I feel really bad about all of this. I have a hard time coping with it. I don’t know what to do,” Pizzuto said. “I am very sorry this happened.”
Pizzuto denied having murdered the Herndons. He also said he has found religion and is one of the best behaved inmates on death row.
Idaho Reports requested copies of any and all disciplinary offense reports Pizzuto received during his time in prison with the Idaho Department of Correction. His last disciplinary offense report was more than 10 years ago for a non-violent offense. The 2011 incident stemmed from an argument with another inmate and a correctional officer over a mail issue, according to a copy of the report.
Anderson said Pizzuto has not done anything to show he is deserving of mercy, only blamed the circumstances of his upbringing and old age though his legal team.
In recent years, Pizzuto has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and was on hospice care. His attorneys reported Pizzuto has bladder cancer, diabetes and several other medical conditions. They’ve asked that their client be allowed to live out the rest of his natural life in prison.
“I’m already dying. Killing me now is a waste of money,” Pizzuto said. “Just let nature take its course.”
Berta Herndon’s daughter, Judy Gonzalski, argued that they’ve been told repeatedly that Pizzuto is terminally ill and close to death, but he is still alive decades after being sentenced.
“Perhaps this man will die any day, perhaps not,” Gonzalski said. “He’s guilty of taking an innocent life.”
Pizzuto’s attorneys went before the Idaho Supreme Court on Nov. 1 and took issue with the Department’s execution procedure, but an opinion had not yet been issued in that case as of Nov. 24. The defense asked the higher court to rule on the district court’s decision to dismiss his complaint asking the court to enjoin, or prohibit, Pizzuto’s execution.
Pizzuto also has pending cases in federal court, alleging violations of his constitutional rights. Like many death by lethal injection cases, the legal challenges also take issue with where the drugs or chemicals used in a potential execution may be obtained by IDOC. Execution chemicals have been obtained through compounding pharmacies in the past, and attorneys argue the FDA does not verify the safety or effectiveness of drugs prepared by compounding pharmacies. Lethal injection is the only form of execution now used in Idaho.
The commission reconvenes Wednesday morning to make their recommendation to the governor. Those deliberations are not subject to public record or disclosure.
If the commission does not grant Pizzuto a commutation recommendation, the state will likely seek the issuance of another death warrant.
Meanwhile, Pizzuto’s execution is stayed and he remains in custody at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution.