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Gerald Pizzuto Jr. commutation request denied by Governor Little

The Idaho Probation and Parole Board voted 4-3 in favor of commuting Pizzuto's death sentence, but Gov. Brad Little disagreed and denied the request.

BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Department of Correction says that the request from Death Row inmate Gerald Pizzuto Jr. to have his death sentence reduced to life in prison was denied Thursday by Governor Brad Little.

Pizzuto was convicted of killing 58-year-old Berta Herndon and her 37-year-old nephew Del Herndon in 1985. He has since been in Idaho's Death Row.

Pizzuto had requested the commutation at a hearing last month with the Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole.

His lawyers urged board members to consider Pizzuto's poor health, his repeated brain injuries, and the torturous childhood physical and sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather as they weigh whether the state of Idaho should end Pizzuto's life. 

Pizzuto is confined to a wheelchair and is dying of advanced bladder cancer, according to his lawyers. He was placed on hospice care in 2019, with doctors estimating then he had about a year left to live. Pizzuto has also had multiple heart attacks and is dealing with complications of diabetes severe enough that he is at risk of losing his feet or legs.

The clemency team did not ask for Pizzuto's release; instead, they urged board members to vote to recommend to Idaho Gov. Brad Little that Pizzuto's death sentence be changed to life without parole, enabling him to die inside prison walls of natural causes rather than lethal injection.

On Thursday, the Commission of Pardons and Parole voted 4-3 in support of commuting Pizzuto's sentence, and gave their recommendation to Governor Little.

The governor disagreed and denied the request, saying in part:

"The severity of Pizzuto's brutal, senseless, and indiscriminate killing spree strongly warrants against commutation. Therefore, I respectfully deny the Commission's recommendation so that the lawful and just sentences for the murders of Berta and Del an be fully carried out as ordered by the court."

Deborah Czuba, Pizzuto's attorney, issued the following statement Thursday regarding the Governor’s denial of Pizzuto’s clemency bid: 

“We are devastated and heartbroken that the Governor, showing no mercy whatsoever, so casually and quickly rejected the Commission’s well-reasoned and thoughtful recommendation that Mr. Pizzuto deserves clemency. We had hoped that the Governor would follow the lead of the Commissioners, and commit Idaho to a higher ideal by sparing Mr. Pizzuto an unnecessary execution based on his impending natural death from terminal disease and his deteriorating mind. 

“We are grateful for the hard work and thoughtfulness of the Commissioners who listened closely to all sides, and poured over piles of evidence before reaching their decision. We stand by our belief that Mr. Pizzuto deserves clemency. He is riddled with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other serious health conditions that are expected to take his life at any moment. He suffers from developmental disabilities and brain injury. His childhood was stolen by unimaginable evil and savagery that broke him inside-out. 

“Mr. Pizzuto has been punished and in pain nearly every day of his miserable life -- more than 35 years of it wasting away in an isolated cell on death row. Mercy is justified for the crippled, dying man he is now, and a long time coming for the unloved, tortured boy who fell through the cracks. “Mr. Pizzuto’s team will continue to pursue all other avenues for preventing the purely vindictive and wasteful execution of a terminally ill old man.” 

Gerald Ross Pizzuto Jr.'s guilt is not in question: He is undoubtedly the person who killed 58-year-old Berta Herndon and her 37-year-old nephew Del Herndon in 1985.

According to court records, Pizzuto was camping near Ruby Meadows in Idaho County with two other men when he came across the Herndons, who were prospecting in the area. Pizzuto entered their cabin, tied the pair up and beat them with a hammer, before stealing their belongings and bragging that he had “put those people to sleep, permanently.”  

James Rice, one of Pizzuto's companions who was not present during the attack, then shot a still-alive but mortally injured Del Herndon in the head. 

The double murder of the Herndons was not Pizzuto's first brush with violent crime, the attorney said.

Pizzuto's ex-wife testified in previous court hearings that he was brutally abusive to her during the marriage, knocking out her teeth, drowning her dog, and once attacking her so savagely while she was pregnant that she went into labor with a preterm baby, who did not survive. 

In May 1975, Pizzuto kidnapped and raped a woman at gunpoint in Michigan. He was convicted of the sexual assault and ultimately served nine years in prison, Anderson said, but absconded from parole after he was released and made his way to Seattle. 

There, he strangled to death 51-year-old Rita Drury, a woman he knew, in her home in March 1985, then shot 31-year-old John Jones to death weeks later. Before police could close in on him, he made his way to Idaho, where he encountered, robbed, and killed the Herndons in July. 

Just days after the double murder, Pizzuto pulled a gun on another man he had met at Gold Fork Hot Springs, robbed him, and left him tied to a tree.

Anderson said Pizzuto "has received more due process than any other death-sentence murderer in Idaho," with his case being taken up multiple times before the Idaho Supreme Court and 9th Circuit Court.

Reject the clemency appeal, he urged board members, and let Gerald Pizzuto die the way he deserves.

"Keep in mind that Rita, John, Del, and Berta were not permitted to die naturally," he said. "Their lives were terminated by a vicious murderer, an evil and vile man with no conscience." 

Judy Gonzalski, Berta's daughter, described her as a devoted mother and grandmother who was always ready to lend a listening ear. 

After decades of watching the case drag on, she said, it's appalling that a commutation was even being considered.

"It's just so hard to believe that I have outlived her. It's just unacceptable to me," Gonzalski said. "Now I'm 64, and justice has not been carried out."

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