State Politics

Gov. Otter says his toughest decision was sending 2 inmates to their deaths

Gov. Butch Otter speaks to the media at his final post-Legislature press conference. Otter is not running for a fourth term this year. With him, from left: House Speaker Scott Bedke, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder.
Gov. Butch Otter speaks to the media at his final post-Legislature press conference. Otter is not running for a fourth term this year. With him, from left: House Speaker Scott Bedke, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder. csewell@idahostatesman.com

Battling budgets, cajoling and wrangling lawmakers, responding to natural disasters, contending with elections and the media — a day in the life of Idaho’s governor runs the gamut.

But Gov. Butch Otter said the most difficult decision he has to make as governor is whether to sign a death warrant for a death row inmate.

“It is a tough decision,” Otter said during his final legislative wrap-up press conference with Statehouse reporters on Thursday.

Forty-one inmates have been given the death penalty in Idaho since 1979. Just three have been executed.

Two of those occurred during Otter’s tenure: Paul Rhoades in 2011 and Richard Leavitt in 2012.

On realizing the full power of his signature in such situations, the governor said: “It was impactful. Very impactful.”

Otter said he has forewarned candidates running for his seat about the responsibility.

“I wish somebody had done that for me. I would have understood a lot more about it,” Otter said. “I do not want them to be surprised.

“Never in my wildest dreams, in all the time I spent running for governor, which was almost two full years, did I ever think about that. I thought about a lot of other things, including the great grand march down the steps and the first dance.”

Executioners Preparations
The execution chamber at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution, as shown in October 2011 prior to the execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades. AP file

When candidates for governor contacted Otter to let him know they were running for his seat, Otter said he felt it was important to let them know about the responsibility that comes with the job.

“That was the first offer that I made: ‘I want to do you a favor. I want to take you out to the green room,’ ” he said, referring to the Idaho Department of Correction’s execution chamber.

“I want the folks to go through the protocol and at every point, this is what happens, and every point you have to ask yourself, do I want to go forward with this? Because as precious as life is and as defensive as we are in exerting a compelling interest in life in Idaho, that’s how.”

Otter said he has already taken GOP gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Brad Little to the execution chambers and reviewed the protocols with him. He is working on scheduling tours for other candidates.

“I guarantee you if they want help, I will make the time to take them out there,” he said.

Idaho’s death row inmates

Of the 41 inmates given the death penalty in Idaho since 1979, about half have had their sentences reversed to a fixed term or life in prison.

Three inmates have been executed: Keith Wells in 1994, Paul Rhoades in 2011 and Richard Leavitt in 2012.

Three inmates have been freed because of new evidence. Donald Paradis was released in 2001 after spending 21 years on death row. Thomas Gibson, Paradis’ co-defendant, was released in 2003 after spending 22 years on death row. Charles Fain was released in 2001 after spending 18 years on death row.

Five inmates have died while in custody. Mark Aragon died of illness in 1988, James Wood died of natural causes in 2004, Michael Jauhola died of illness in 2014, Darrell Edward Payne died of illness in 2015, and Zane Jack Fields died of natural causes in 2017.

Nine inmates remain on death row:

▪  Azad Abdullah: Sentenced in Ada County in 2004 for the killing of his wife.

▪  David Card: Sentenced in Canyon County in 1989 for shooting two people.

▪  Thomas Creech: Sentenced in Ada County in 1983 for beating an inmate to death.

▪  Timothy Dunlap: Sentenced in Caribou County in 1992 for killing a woman during a bank robbery.

▪  James Hairston: Sentenced in 1996 in Bannock County for the fatal shooting of two people.

▪  Erick Hall: Two separate Ada County death sentences, in 2004 and 2008, for the rape and murder of two women in 2000 and in 2003.

▪  Gerald Pizzuto: Sentenced in Idaho County in 1986 for the beating deaths of two people.

▪  Jonathan Daniel Renfro: Sentenced in November 2017 for the shooting death of a police officer in Kootenai County.

▪  Robin Row: The only woman on death row. Sentenced in Ada County in 1993 for the arson deaths of her husband, son and daughter.

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

Otter deems final legislative session a success

Gov. Butch Otter says he’s focused on celebrating the successes of his last legislative session during three terms in office rather than complain about what lawmakers didn’t achieve over the past three months.

Otter said Thursday that some of the highlighted accomplishments of the session included passage of a $225 million tax cut, investments in education spending and expanding criminal penalties for threats against schools.

However, the session was also marked by the failure for the sixth year in a row between lawmakers and Otter on finding a way to provide health care coverage to the state’s poorest working individuals.

Otter said he was disappointed that his proposal — which was estimated to help roughly 35,000 Idahoans — stalled in the House but said the discussions will help make progress at another time.

— Associated Press

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