Idaho Supreme Court weighs who has final say on commutation

by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports

The Idaho Supreme Court heard arguments Monday on whether the governor has the ability to reject a recommendation for commutation from the Commission of Pardons and Parole. 

Gerald Pizzuto Jr. has been on Idaho’s death row for more than 35 years. The commission held a commutation hearing in November, after which they recommended Pizzuto’s sentence be reduced to life in prison without parole on a 4-3 vote. Gov. Brad Little denied that recommendation in December.

Pizzuto’s attorneys argue that the governor does not have constitutional authority to deny the commission’s recommendation. Their case persuaded Idaho County District Judge Jay Gaskill to temporarily halt Pizzuto’s execution, which the state appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court. 

“When considering the ultimate penalty of death, this Court will err on the side of caution regarding which entity has the ultimate say in whether the sentence of death should be commuted,” Gaskill wrote in February

Deputy Attorney General LaMont Anderson, who argued on behalf of the state, said the Idaho Constitution outlines that a board of pardons (now called the Commission of Pardons and Parole) has the power to grant commutations and pardons. A 1986 constitutional amendment added the phrase “only as provided by statute.”

“Said board, or a majority thereof, shall have power to remit fines and forfeitures, and, only as provided by statute, to grant commutations and pardons…”

Idaho Constitution, Article IV, Section 7 (emphasis added)

Anderson argued the voter-approved amendment removed the commutation power from the commission. Without an enabling statute passed by the legislature, he said, the commission would have no power to grant commutations or pardons.

Assistant federal defender Jonah Horwitz argued on behalf of Pizzuto, saying the commutation power still rests with the commission. While the legislature regulates that power, Horwitz said, the legislature overstepped their authority by assigning the commutation power to a different entity than the commission. 

“…for offenses, or conspiracies to commit any offense, for which the maximum punishment allowed by law at the time of sentencing is death or life imprisonment, the commission’s determination shall only constitute a recommendation subject to approval or disapproval by the governor.”

Idaho Code 20-1016 (emphasis added)

Justice Colleen Zahn recused herself from the case. Senior Justice Joel Horton filled in for her. The court will issue a written opinion at a later date.

“I am committed to the rule of law and have followed the Idaho Constitution and Idaho Code in denying a reduced sentence,” Little said in a Friday statement. “The severity of Pizzuto’s brutal, senseless, and indiscriminate killing spree strongly warrants against a reduced sentence. The state must have the ability to fully carry out the just sentences as ordered by the court in this case.”

The court previously ruled against Pizzuto in a case surrounding the Idaho Department of Correction’s execution procedure. 

<strong>Logan Finney</strong> | Associate Producer
Logan Finney | Associate Producer

Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since. 

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