Think of the death penalty machinery as a noisy, whirling, random labyrinth.
The vast percentage of people charged with committing the roughly 16,000 murders in the United States each year are quickly excluded; their crimes do not qualify for execution.
Also bypassed are those who reside within the 23 states, including Washington, where capital punishment does not exist.
Then there are those who notwithstanding the horrific nature of their crimes, had something to bargain with in exchange for a life sentence. Among them is Gary Leon Ridgway, the Green River killer responsible for 49 murders.
Next to be culled are death row inmates whose convictions or sentences were overturned on appeal.
Don’t forget that increasing number — now up to 185 — of people who spent years on death row only to be exonerated on the basis of DNA and other new evidence. Among them is Charles Fain of Idaho.
Next are the few who cheat the hangman by dying of natural causes before the appeals process runs out.
After all of this, Idaho’s death penalty machinery has selected Gerald Pizzuto Jr. for a June 2 execution by lethal injection.
That is, if the Grim Reaper doesn’t get him first.
The 65-year-old has been on Idaho’s death row for almost 35 years for the 1985 murders of Berta Herndon and her nephew, Del Herndon, in an Idaho County cabin.
A clemency petition filed by the Federal Defender Office of Idaho inventories Pizzuto’s ailments:terminal bladder cancer, COPD, Type 2 diabetes and chronic and coronary artery disease. He has suffered two heart attacks. Confined to a wheelchair and on hospice care, Pizzuto is literally on borrowed time. In 2019, his doctors reckoned he’d be dead within a year.
Not only have Idaho taxpayers covered the equivalent of Pizzuto’s life sentence, but everything else that goes with the death penalty — the appeals, the lawyers, the physical infrastructure of housing inmates and then being prepared for the once-in-a-decade reckoning with the death chamber. Studies in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas alone suggest a capital punishment case is three times more expensive than a life sentence.
Nor is he an anomaly. Thanks to an appeals process that drags out for decades, America’s death rows are filled with people just like Pizzuto — aged, ill and possibly suffering from dementia. In the 20 years leading up to 2016, the number of condemned inmates 60 and older had grown more than 11 times to 459.
Why do this?
Public safety? What does the public have to fear from a sick and dying man?
Deterrence? Who would have traded places with Pizzuto these past 3½ decades?
Closure for families of the victims? Consider what Marilyn Peterson Armour and Mark S. Umbreit learned from relatives of murder victims in Texas, which has the death penalty, and Minnesota, which does not. In their study published by Marquette Law Review a decade ago, they found the families in Minnesota experienced “higher levels of physical, psychological and behavioral health” because the certainty of the perpetrator’s punishment gave survivors “greater control, likely because the appeals process was successful, predictable and completed within two years of conviction; whereas the finality of the appeals process in Texas was drawn out, elusive, delayed and unpredictable.”
If the idea of executing a dying man for a crime committed in 1985 for no apparent reason other than justifying capital punishment leaves you a bit queasy, think of the lengths Idaho will likely go to achieve it.
Because the pharmaceutical industry restricts its products to save lives, Idaho’s Department of Correction has turned to the back alley.
As uncovered by the Utah Investigative Journalism Project and the Salt Lake Tribune, the state eventually turned to Salt Lake City compound pharmacist Richard Rasmuson for the 2011 execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades. But after taking $5,000 or $6,000 in cash — the state says it was more than $10,000 — eight days before Rhoades’ execution commenced, Rasmuson had regrets: “And then, almost immediately after I had already committed, I decided it wasn’t a good idea and I wouldn’t do it again.”
Tommy Simmons of the Idaho Press reported more than a year ago that corrections officials exchanged a suitcase filled with more than $10,000 in cash at a Tacoma Walmart parking lot for the lethal compounds used to execute Richard Leavitt on June 12, 2012.
Never mind the black eye Idaho will give itself by executing a dying man with chemicals obtained in parking lot drug deals.
This is extremely unusual if not incredibly cruel.
Doesn’t the U.S. Constitution have something to say about that? — M.T.