Gerald Pizzuto is near death, but it’s unclear whether the cancer or the state of Idaho will get to him first.
For more than a year, the 65-year-old has been in hospice care on Idaho’s death row, suffering from advanced bladder tumors, along with Type 2 diabetes, and a variety of heart and lung diseases. According to his defense team, he’s been prescribed 42 different drugs in the last year, and his medical records say he has “begun experiencing memory loss and mild disorientation associated with the death process,” reported The Marshall Project.
But on Thursday, the Idaho attorney general’s office confirmed the state’s plan to execute him on June 2, for the 1985 murders of two gold prospectors in the mountains north of Boise. If it goes through as planned, this will be Idaho’s first execution in nine years.
Given the likelihood that Pizzuto will soon die of natural causes, his case may stir up the recurring debates about the cost of capital punishment in this fiscally conservative state. His legal team has filed a petition for clemency, calling the execution “an unnecessary exercise, with significant operational and personnel costs for the State.”
“I don’t understand trying to kill somebody who is already dying,” said his sister Angelinna Pizzuto.
Across the country, executions are growing less frequent each year. But many of those facing execution are terminally ill, or simply very old. While courts try to ensure that innocent people aren’t executed and guilty people don’t face violations of their constitutional rights, the appeals process has grown longer and longer. Federal data show that people executed in 1987 had spent an average of just over seven years in prison; by 2017, those executed had been on death row for an average of nearly 20 years.
“We’ve got death rows that are starting to feel like assisted living,” said Bernard Harcourt, a Columbia law professor whose own client, Doyle Hamm, was 61 and terminally ill with lymphatic cancer when Alabama tried to execute him in 2018. Hamm’s failing health rendered it impossible for prison officials to find a usable vein, even after hours of poking that left him with a punctured bladder. Two months later, the state executed 83-year-old Walter Moody, the oldest person put to death in recent times.
In Ohio, officials tried and failed to execute Alva Campbell, who was already dying of cancer. He was unable to walk, used a colostomy bag and required four breathing treatments per day. Officials called off the execution in 2017 after they could not find a vein, and Campbell later died in his cell of natural causes.
Then in June 2018, Texas executed a confessed serial killer named Danny Bible, who shook with Parkinson’s tremors as he lay on the gurney. Bible’s legal team had argued, unsuccessfully, that he was too sick for execution because his “galaxy of medical issues” would make the process more painful, violating the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
For more than two decades, defense lawyers for death row prisoners have argued that long prison stays under the impending threat of death amount to “cruel and unusual punishment,” and that lethal injection methods can cause excessive pain to prisoners in ill health.
The most successful of these efforts have been about dementia. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that people cannot be executed if they don’t understand why. In 2018 the court agreed to hear the case of Vernon Madison, who was facing execution in Alabama even though he could not remember his crime, the 1985 murder of a police officer. Alabama officials had argued that executing Madison would still fulfill the primary purposes of the death penalty — retribution and deterrence — and attorneys general in 14 other states took their side in the case.
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