Idaho, unable to obtain pentobarbital, delays death row inmate execution
This is the fourth time in 36 years that the death warrant for double murderer Gerald Pizzuto will expire
By Kevin Fixler
BOISE, Idaho — Idaho’s first execution in more than a decade, scheduled this month for death row inmate Gerald Pizzuto, was postponed Wednesday after the state prison system acknowledged that it has been unable to obtain the necessary lethal injection drugs.
Idaho Department of Correction Director Josh Tewalt, tasked with carrying out Pizzuto’s planned Dec. 15 execution, told the governor and Idaho attorney general’s office of the development in a letter, as well as through an attorney’s federal district court filing. Pizzuto’s death warrant will be allowed to lapse, the corresponding court filing reads.
“While our efforts to secure chemicals remain ongoing, I have no reason to believe our status will change prior to the scheduled execution on Dec. 15, 2022,” Tewalt wrote in the letter. “In my professional judgment, I believe it is in the best interest of justice to allow the death warrant to expire and stand down our execution preparation.”
Pizzuto, who is imprisoned at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution outside Kuna, is to remain “housed in a manner consistent with Idaho Code” while his death warrant is still active, Tewalt added. Idaho death row inmates are moved to a separate holding area with 24-hour observation once their death warrants are signed.
Pizzuto, 66, has been on Idaho death row since 1986 after his conviction for the murders of two people during an armed robbery north of McCall in the summer of 1985. This is the fourth time during that 36-year period that Pizzuto will bypass a death warrant, including the second in two years.
The attorney general’s office, which is overseeing Pizzuto’s execution process, declined an Idaho Statesman request for comment beyond a separate legal filing in federal district court. The one-paragraph filing stated that the attorney general’s office is notifying the court that the state prison system “does not have the chemicals to carry out the execution.”
Gov. Brad Little did not respond to a Statesman request for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Pizzuto is terminally ill with late-stage bladder cancer, along with a host of other serious medical conditions. He’s been under hospice care for more than two years.
The Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole last year recommended that Pizzuto’s death sentence be reduced to life in prison in part because of his failing health. Little immediately rejected the state parole board’s recommendation, citing the heinousness of Pizzuto’s crimes.
Pizzuto’s attorneys with the nonprofit Federal Defender Services of Idaho have continued to advocate for the state to allow their client to die in prison of natural causes rather than force taxpayers to shoulder the added costs of an execution.
“We are greatly relieved about the news and will continue to do everything we can to spare Mr. Pizzuto, the citizens of Idaho and the prison staff the needless execution of a sick old man who is clearly not a threat,” Deborah Czuba, supervising attorney of the nonprofit’s unit that handles death penalty cases, said in a statement. “The state’s decision to get a death warrant while being unprepared for an execution led to a tremendous amount of unnecessary and costly litigation, all at taxpayer expense.
“We remain steadfast in our position that the governor should follow the recommendation of the parole commission and commute Mr. Pizzuto’s sentence to life without parole,” Czuba added.
Lethal injection is Idaho’s only permitted method of execution. The state’s preferred chemical is pentobarbital — a potent sedative that can stop a person’s breathing in higher doses.
The Schedule II controlled substance has become increasingly difficult to obtain for the 24 U.S. states that maintain the death penalty. Heightened public scrutiny contributed to drug manufacturers refusing to sell pentobarbital to state prison systems, because of its use in executions by lethal injection.
Nevertheless, Pizzuto’s attorneys have a standing federal lawsuit that argued the drug’s use on their client may represent cruel and unusual punishment, because of potential negative effects related to Pizzuto’s various health conditions. As such, executing Pizzuto with pentobarbital would violate his constitutional rights, the lawsuit stated.
But the challenge of acquiring the drug has led states across the U.S. to pursue great lengths to carry out executions. Idaho has, too, with its prison officials employing unusual means in its prior two executions — in 2011 and 2012 — to buy pentobarbital from out-of-state pharmacies with dubious regulatory histories, according to public records previously obtained by the Statesman.
To further shield future execution drug suppliers from possible identification, the Idaho attorney general’s office earlier this year worked with the state prison system to pass legislation that exempts similar records from release through the public records process. At the time, Tewalt asserted to members of the Legislature that without the change, the state would be unable to perform lethal injections, because it could not guarantee confidentiality to potential execution drug sellers.
Tewalt said in his Wednesday letter to the governor and attorney general’s office that he and the state prison system have been unable to obtain the drugs for Pizzuto’s scheduled execution anyway.
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