Idaho U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill has ruled in favor of death row prisoner Gerald Pizzuto, indefinitely pausing his March 2023 execution date, and granting him a hearing in his claim that the state of Idaho violates his Constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment by repeatedly scheduling execution dates while knowing the state does not have the means to carry it out. “As Pizzuto describes it,” Judge Winmill wrote, “defendants’ repeated rescheduling of his execution is like dry firing in a mock execution or a game of Russian roulette… With each new death warrant comes another spin of the revolver’s cylinder, restarting the 30-day countdown until the trigger pulls. Not knowing whether a round is chambered, Pizzuto must relive his last days in a delirium of uncertainty until the click sounds and the cylinder spins again.”

Mr. Pizzuto, who has been on death row since 1986, has faced five execution dates during his 37 years behind bars, three of which have been set during the past two years. Despite being under hospice care for the last three years with terminal bladder cancer, the state says it intends to execute Mr. Pizzuto. According to Attorney General Raúl Labrador, “Idaho law is clear: Those who commit the most egregious crimes deserve the ultimate punishment… Pizzuto was sentenced to death. We followed the law and obtained a new death warrant.” AG Labrador’s most recent effort to execute Mr. Pizzuto came in February 2023, when he secured a death warrant for the following month. The same day that AG Labrador announced his intention to obtain a death warrant for Mr. Pizzuto, Mr. Pizzuto’s attorneys filed a lawsuit claiming that “the state had operated in bad faith by obtaining death warrants while knowing it lacked the lethal injection drugs required under Idaho law to execute [their] client.”

AG Labrador requested that the court dismiss Mr. Pizzuto’s claim that the repeated rescheduling of his execution violated his Eighth Amendment rights, but Judge Winmill dismissed the AG’s motion. Judge Winmill also rejected Mr. Pizzuto’s claim that his due process rights were violated under the 14th Amendment but found Mr. Pizzuto’s claims of mental anguish and “psychological torture” were “plausible,” which is the legal threshold required for a hearing.

Having spent nearly four decades on death row, Mr. Pizzuto’s attorneys argue that Idaho’s repeated scheduling of executions “does not fall within [US] society’s standards for a constitutional execution. The setting of multiple execution dates has been psychologically traumatizing to [him].” Many experts in the capital punishment sphere believe the long periods of isolation during time spent on death row can lead to suicidality, delusion, and insanity. This concept, ‘death row phenomenon,’ occurs when long-term isolation and uncertain outcomes begin to have psychological implications. For those living on death row, there is a dichotomy to their daily life: certainty and uncertainty. As Reprieve describes, there is “the certainty and mounting tensions that execution is an inevitability that looms ever closer, but uncertainty about exactly when it will happen, and how long the lengthily legal process, with its many delays and improbabilities, will leave the prisoner in this state.”

In a notable ruling from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued in 2018, the Commission determined that in the case of Russell Bucklew, a death-sentenced prisoner in Missouri, the United States had violated Bucklew’s human rights granted by the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man by keeping him on death row for more than 20 years. In its decision, the Commission wrote:

Russell Bucklew has been deprived of his liberty on death row from 1997 to the date of the present report, i.e., more than 20 years. The Commission notes that the time spent by Russell Bucklew on death row greatly exceeds the length of time that other international and domestic courts have characterized as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The very fact of spending 20 years on death row is, by any account, excessive and inhuman. Consequently, the United States is responsible for violating, to the detriment of Russell Bucklew, the right to humane treatment and not to receive cruel, infamous, or unusual punishment established in Article XXVI of the American Declaration.

The United States Supreme Court has not directly addressed a challenge to the constitutionality of the extended time most prisoners spend on death row, though former Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer previously raised concerns about the constitutionality of prolonged delays. In a 1995 response to a denial of certiorari, Justice Stevens questioned whether the two principle justifications for the death penalty, deterrence and retribution, retained “any force” after a seventeen year delay on death row. Joining Justice Stevens, Justice Breyer wrote that this issue is “an important undecided one,” but neither Justice dissented from the Courts decision to decline hearing the case. Later in his tenure on the Court, however, Justice Breyer noted the tension between avoiding lengthy delays without curtailing constitutional guarantees. In Bucklew v. Precythe, Justice Breyer’s dissent notes that undue delays in death penalty cases “exacerbate the suffering that accompanies an execution itself,” and can “aggravate the cruelty of capital punishment” by subjecting the offender to years in solitary confinement.  He continues that delays also “undermine [capital punishment’s] jurisprudential rationale” by reducing its deterrent effect and retributive value. Justice Breyer concludes that “it may be that there is no way to execute a prisoner quickly while affording him the protection that our Constitution guarantees to those who have been singled out for our law’s most severe sanction.”