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Idaho State Supreme Court hears death penalty arguments

Boise State Public Radio

This week the Idaho Supreme Court heard arguments on who in the state has the power to commute a death sentence to life in prison.

At the end of 2021 Idaho Governor Brad Little overruled a state commission’s recommendation that a terminally ill inmate’s death sentence be commuted to life in prison.

The inmate has appealed the governor’s decision all the way to the State Supreme Court, arguing Little never had the authority to make that decision.

Gerald Ross Pizzuto has been facing a death sentence for more than 30 years for the killing of two Idaho gold prospectors in the 1980s. He also was convicted of a rape in Michigan, according to the Idaho Statesman.

Pizzuto is dying of cancer. The Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole recommended his sentenced be commuted to life in prison, in part because of his medical conditions. Governor Brad Little argued the state should carry out the death sentence because of the severity of Pizzuto’s crime.

Before the Supreme Court Monday, LaMont Anderson, a lawyer for the state of Idaho, argued a Constitutional amendment approved in the 1980s took the power to commute sentencing away from the commission, gave it to the legislature, which gave that power to the governor.

“If you look at the plain and ordinary meaning of those words, it means that the commission has no power,” Anderson said, “except, now I will insert the word except as opposed to only, except as provided by statute, by the legislature.”

Jonah Horwitz, an attorney arguing against Pizzuto’s death warrant, argued lower courts were correct in overruling the governor. He says voters who approved the 1980s constitutional amendment thought they were regulating the parole board, not stripping it of its authority.

“Section seven describes only one actor as exercising the commutation power. That actor is the parole commission,” he said. “There is no suggestion in section seven that the governor enjoys any part of the commutation power.”

This case, which eventually will be decided by the Idaho Supreme Court, could have long-ranging effects on how death penalty commutations are handled in the state.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.