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Idaho Supreme Court considers death row clemency case

The arguments focused on whether the state constitution authorizes the governor to veto the Pardons and Parole commission's decision in the case of Gerald Pizzuto.

BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments on whether the state's constitution gives a governor the power to veto a state commission's clemency decision for a death row inmate, but held off making a ruling.

Gerald Pizzuto Jr. was scheduled to be executed last year for killing two people in 1985 but asked for clemency due to his terminal cancer.

The state's Commission of Pardons and Parole granted clemency in December and recommended to Republican Gov. Brad Little that Pizzuto's death sentence be commuted to life in prison.

But Little rejected that decision, allowing Pizzuto's execution to go forward.

Pizzuto's attorneys challenged Little's decision, and a district court in February ruled Little didn't have the power to reject the commission's commutation decision. Little then appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court.

Attorneys and justices during the hour-long hearing focused on an apparently ambiguous section of Idaho law added by a 1986 constitutional amendment.

Article IV, Section 7 of the Idaho Constitution states, in part, that a board or commission may grant commutations and pardons after conviction and judgment, and that the legislature "shall by law prescribe the sessions of said board and the manner in which application shall be made..." Under section 20-1016 of Idaho statutory law, the commission "shall have full and final authority to grant commutations and pardons... in all cases of offense against the state except treason or impeachment and as otherwise provided" in Idaho law. A subsequent paragraph in that section goes on to say that the commission's determination with respect to commutations and pardons for offenses punishable by death or by life imprisonment "shall only constitute a recommendation subject to approval or disapproval by the governor."

Specifically, the state is asking the court to reverse the district court's ruling and remand the case with instructions to issue a death warrant for Pizzuto.

Pizzuto's attorneys want the justices to uphold the district court's decision and leave the commission's commutation decision in place.

The court didn't say when it might make a ruling.

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