Execution of Idaho’s longest-serving death row inmate delayed for sentence review hearing
Thomas Creech was sentenced to life in prison, but less than 10 years later, he beat another man in custody to death and was sentenced to death
By Kevin Fixler
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho — Idaho death row inmate Thomas Creech’s scheduled execution next month was delayed Wednesday after the state’s parole board granted him a clemency hearing to consider dropping his death sentence to life in prison.
An Ada County judge last week signed a death warrant for Creech, a convicted quadruple murderer and the state’s longest-serving death row inmate. Idaho prison officials quickly issued notice that they already have the lethal injection drugs needed to end Creech’s life. It would be the state’s first execution in more than 11 years.
The judge set a Nov. 8 date for his execution by lethal injection, which now will be canceled. The parole board has yet to schedule a date for Creech’s clemency hearing, Ashley Dowell, executive director of the state’s Commission of Pardons and Parole, told the Idaho Statesman by email.
Creech’s attorneys with the nonprofit Federal Defender Services of Idaho last week petitioned the parole board to review whether to let their client finish out a life sentence without the chance of parole. In their 256-page filing, a copy of which the nonprofit provided to the Statesman last week, they argued that Creech, 73, should be allowed to live out his days in prison and die of natural causes.
Retired Ada County Judge Robert Newhouse of Idaho’s 4th Judicial District handed a death sentence to Creech for killing fellow prisoner David Dale Jensen when they were both serving time in maximum security prison in 1981. Along with six former Idaho Department of Correction officials for whom Creech developed close-knit relationships during decades in lockup, Newhouse advocated in the petition against executing Creech.
“Creech has spent more than 40 years on death row with the threat of execution hanging over him,” Newhouse wrote in a declaration signed in August. “I believe that time, along with spending the rest of his life in prison, is punishment enough. An execution now would just be an act of vengeance.”
Former Ada County Prosecutor Jim Harris prosecuted Creech for Jensen’s murder. He told the Statesman by phone that he remains a supporter of the death penalty, but generally agreed with Newhouse’s perspective because the capital punishment system in place has for decades shown itself to be ineffective — and a substantial drain on taxpayers.
“Certainly if anybody deserved the death penalty, it was probably him,” Harris said of Creech. “But the system that resulted in a 40-year delay should not exist, and in that respect it should not happen.”
Harris said he didn’t oppose Creech receiving a clemency review yet still had reservations about the possibility of him being reintroduced into the larger prison population if he eventually was pulled from death row.
“He’s an old man now, but he’s still Tom Creech,” Harris said. “I agree with the judge that as long as he’s carefully watched, there’s no real ethical reason to kill him now. By the same token, I’m still concerned he might kill someone else.”
The parole board’s decision, made in a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning, postpones Creech’s scheduled execution in three weeks. In an email to the Statesman after the meeting, Dowell said the seven-member panel’s vote was 4-1, but didn’t explain why two members were either absent or did not vote.
Wednesday’s decision means Creech’s fate may ultimately land with Gov. Brad Little, who has the power to accept or reject the parole board’s future recommendation on whether to reduce the longtime death row inmate’s sentence to life in prison.
“Gov. Little is committed to the rule of law and allowing the legal process to play out,” Madison Hardy Little’s spokesperson, said in a statement to the Statesman. “As chief executive of the state, the governor’s role is to faithfully carry out lawful sentences imposed through the judicial processes.”
Meanwhile, Idaho Department of Correction spokesperson Sanda Kuzeta-Cerimagic told the Statesman that correction officials were aware of Wednesday morning’s development. But their preparations for Creech’s Nov. 8 lethal injection will continue until an official stay of execution is entered, she said.
“At that point, Mr. Creech would be returned to his regular housing assignment” on death row, Kuzeta-Cerimagic said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the Federal Defender Services declined to comment.
At a Wednesday afternoon court hearing concerning Creech before U.S. District Court Judge Amanda Brailsford, Mary Spears, one of Creech’s attorneys, acknowledged the parole board’s decision. She told Brailsford the Federal Defender Services contacted the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office to request a stay of execution for their client and received a one-word reply: “No.”
A spokesperson for the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office, which pursued Creech’s death warrant, declined to comment and directed the Statesman to the Idaho attorney general’s office.
LaMont Anderson, the longtime chief of the attorney general’s capital litigation unit, attended the court hearing Wednesday afternoon, but declined to comment on the parole board’s decision. Attorney General Raúl Labrador also declined to comment.
Creech gets death penalty for murdering fellow inmate
Altogether, Creech has been incarcerated in Idaho for nearly 50 years — the bulk of them on death row from a conviction for two murders in Valley County in 1974. That sentence was later reduced to life in prison before Jensen’s murder in 1981 led to Creech again being sentenced to death.
Creech also was convicted in Oregon of another murder in 1974, and previously claimed to have killed or been involved in the deaths of at least 26 people, according to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Arave v. Creech. Creech’s attorneys had argued the term “utter disregard” for human life was too broad to use as an aggravating factor for his death penalty case. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor issued the court’s 7-2 decision against Creech.
Creech’s standing death sentence relates just to Jensen’s murder, for which he pleaded guilty.
“The facts underlying this case could not be more chilling,” O’Connor wrote in her opinion for the 1992 federal appeal case.
At the time, Creech, then 30, got into a fight with Jensen, a 23-year-old Pocatello man convicted of felony theft. Jensen was physically disabled before entering prison after having part of his brain removed and a plastic plate inserted into his head.
Creech used a sock filled with batteries to beat Jensen to death, according to an Idaho Supreme Court narrative cited by O’Connor. The plastic plate in Jensen’s skull shattered and he fell to the floor, where Creech continued to beat him. When the sock broke, Creech kicked Jensen in the head and throat.
After a prison guard discovered blood on the floors and wall, Jensen was taken to the hospital, where he died later that day, the court narrative read. Creech was charged with first-degree murder, including several aggravating circumstances that made him eligible for the death penalty.
In the clemency hearing petition submitted to the parole board last week, Creech described himself as a “devout Christian” and apologized to the Jensen family for the pain he caused them. He said he was remorseful for all of the crimes he has committed.
“I regret killing David Jensen more than anything I’ve ever done in my life,” Creech wrote in a declaration signed the day before being served a death warrant. “I’ve changed a lot since 1981. I’m not the person I was. I believe I’ve touched a lot of hearts in the last 40 years. If my sentence were commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, I would do my best to continue having a positive impact on people’s lives.”
In light of Wednesday’s development, Little’s office sought to remind the public of Creech’s lengthy criminal history.
“Thomas Creech is a serial killer convicted of numerous atrocious murders and was lawfully sentenced to death in a court of law,” said Hardy, Little’s spokesperson. “He also bragged about killing many other people in other states but was never convicted of those crimes. Gov. Little supports capital punishment because it is sometimes the only way to bring justice upon evildoers and provide victims’ families with some measure of peace.”
Gov. Little rejected prior parole board recommendation
The parole board’s decision Wednesday to provide Creech a formal clemency review marks the second time in two and a half years it has granted such a hearing to an inmate with an active death warrant.It’s just the third time the board has done so since Idaho reinstated the death penalty in the late 1970s. The two prior known times occurred in 2021 and 1996.
In the most recent instance, the parole board held a two-day review in November 2021 for death row inmate Gerald Pizzuto — a convicted double-murderer who is Idaho’s second-longest serving death row inmate, behind only Creech. The board voted 4-3 to grant life in prison to Pizzuto, another Federal Defender Services client, before Little overruled the decision and maintained Pizzuto’s death sentence.
The case launched a legal battle over whether the Idaho Constitution provides the governor the authority to reject the parole board’s decisions. The Idaho Supreme Court ruled unanimously that he does.
Pizzuto, 67, on death row since 1986, remains there today. A federal judge in Idaho issued a stay of execution in August over a legal challenge that argued a state repeatedly issuing a death warrant to a prisoner without having the lethal injection drugs needed to perform an execution may represent cruel and unusual punishment.
Before that, the only other time Idaho is believed to have held a clemency hearing for a death row inmate was in 1996, when the board reviewed the case of convicted murderer Donald Paradis. The board voted 3-2 to recommended his death sentence be commuted to life in prison, which then-Gov. Phil Batt granted over some doubts whether Paradis was guilty, Batt said at that time.
In 2001, Paradis was released from prison after 21 years of incarceration, including 14 on death row.