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February 29, 2024

Idaho just halted the Execution of the Nicest, Cold-Blooded Killer & my favorite Death Row Inmate.

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It was my first day working on death row.

My first week working at the maximum security prison. I stepped on to the tier, solid metal gray cell doors separated me from the condemned.

The room smelled of a combination of cheap commercial cleaner and humanity. My boots clanked as I made my way up a flight of metal stairs to the first cell on the left. I peeked inside, and standing in a blue prison uniform was a man in his late fifties or early sixties. He was clean shaven with neatly trimmed silver hair. He slowly turned to me, almost like the scene in “Silence of the Lambs” when Clarice Starling first met Hannibal Lecter.

He came to the door with a grin. And while his smile seemed warm, his eyes were noticeably cold. Through the “bean slot,” which is a lockable passthrough on the front of the solid cell door, he slipped me a handmade business card. On it read, “Have sock full of batteries, will travel.” It was an inside joke. One that invoked the old television Western about a gunfighter for hire. And, on the other hand, his story.

That inmate’s name was Thomas Creech.

This was his second time on death row. The first time was for some murders that happened in the 1970s. Eventually, his sentence for that crime was commuted to life in prison without parole. He was then released back into general population to serve his sentence. Within a few months, Creech apparently became disgusted with his cell-mate (who I learned later was neurodivergent).

So one day, Creech took the D cell batteries out of his prison radio, put them in a sock, and bludgeoned that man to death. Creech abhorred other inmates, and had a strange moral code in which he seemed to regard himself as the highest example. So back on death row he went.

Believe it or not, Creech was one of the most respectful inmates I would ever encounter during my time there, despite his crimes. When I met him, he had already been on death row for murdering his cellmate for more than a decade. As of this writing, he still hasn’t been executed. The state of Idaho is good at giving out the death sentence—bad at carrying it out.

Some of the correctional officers called him “Tom.” I believe I usually referred to him as “Mr. Creech,” but that was nearly 30 years ago. With that said, what I am about to recall is from distant memory, and some thoughts might be a little fuzzy.

I thought it was most important to share his story as we’re within hours, potentially, of Creech being no more—and I have some emotions about that.

I know of other former officers who worked with Creech and are having some feelings about that too. My best friend knows a former death row officer who is also kind of heartbroken. She told him Creech wrote personalized poems to some of the staff for Christmas one year. She was one of the few recipients. It seems almost unbelievable that a man who claimed to have killed more people than he was convicted for could give like this. But Creech made personal and intimate connections during his time there.

He was a funny guy sometimes. I felt like he was fairly reserved but sometimes would surprise me with a quick joke. One Christmas, I was dropping off a little container of peppermint ice cream that the prison was giving out as a holiday treat with their meal. As I handed him his meal tray, he goes, “Hey Day, if you give me a pint of ice cream and access, I’ll kill anyone in this prison for you.”

We chuckled and I said, “I’ll keep that in mind.” The thing is, I don’t think he was kidding. He would continue on to tell me how much he loves ice cream. So honestly, I hope a large component of his final meal was rocky road.

Creech has been in prison and on death row on and off since two years before I was born. He has been a daily staple for two full careers of officers. I just read that a former warden and some other staff asked for his clemency. I would too. Not just because of my connection to Creech, but, really, should we be doing this?

Idaho’s first lethal injection execution was back in 1994. It only happened because the condemned decided to give up his last appeals. He was tired of being on death row and decided not to fight anymore. The inmate, Keith Wells, was put to death just after midnight. On the night of the execution, protests both for and against the death penalty gathered outside the maximum security prison. One sign read, “All’s well that ends Wells.” Brilliant—disgusting, but brilliant.

I personally have been conflicted about the death penalty for many years. It’s true, there are evil people in this world. Those who don’t value the sanctity of human life. Who feel no emotion as they murder. Sometimes, it feels right to condemn a person to death for an especially heinous crime. Unfortunately, the whole process is flawed.

For instance, the United States has a long history of disproportionately applying this ultimate punishment against people of color and the poor. Much of it is institutional racism codified and enforced by the courts. And there have been failures in the criminal justice system overall where innocent men have been killed. Numerous studies have shown that race plays a big role in who gets capital case convictions. The Death Penalty Information Center states in a 2021 report, “Data showing that since executions resumed in 1977, 295 African-American defendants have been executed for interracial murders of white victims, while only 21 white defendants have been executed for interracial murders of African Americans.”

To be clear, this is more of an issue nationally. None of the inmates I worked with in Idaho were persons of color, to my knowledge. But obviously, fairness when it comes to race and capital punishment is skewed.

It’s a sensitive issue. People want righteous retribution for murder and mayhem. We are emotionally connected to the idea of “an eye for an eye.” Plus, there are men and women so damaged that they are not only a danger to society, but fundamentally morally reprehensible. For some, this might make it easy to reconcile internal conflict over the death penalty, and that the only option for those inmates is death.

An example of evil some might consider deserving of death was a man convicted of a crime more horrific than most in my eyes. He was a bitter man whose face looked the part. His thin frame was thick with an aura of… wickedness. His crime? He took a toddler by the ankles and bashed the child head-on into the side of a bathtub. The inmate was annoyed at the child because it kept crying as he tried to have sex with the boy’s mother. Emotionally, it’s hard to not want to see someone like that die for such a horrific act. It was sick. Could someone like this ever be redeemed?

For obvious reasons, society wants more punishment for crimes against children. We consider the innocence of the child, and are angered that the callous murderer did not. We are pained by a child’s senseless murder. How could a person not be? We ask ourselves, why should this murderer be given mercy when they did not afford it to a gentle child. But doesn’t mercy mean more when it’s given to someone who may not seemingly deserve it?

Another inmate I worked with was one of the worst of the worst. Staff and the other death row inmates despised him. Lacey Sivak was tall with short brown hair and the look of a man with a twisted soul. Sivak and his partner robbed a convenience store clerk. During the hold up, they then raped, mutilated, and murdered her. Hours later when police captured them, as the story goes, officers recovered the woman’s severed breast. The victim, Dixie Wilson, was loved by the community. The crime shattered and stunned residents of Garden City, Idaho.

Wilson was known for her kindness, especially to ex-convicts struggling to make their way in the outside world. Her senseless death would leave a hole in the community, and her kids without a mother. Mike, my stepdad, told me about her murder years before I worked at the prison. He was a police officer who worked the murder initially. What he told me about it was gruesome and stuck with him in a deep way. He knew her. Everybody did.

Recently, Idaho pushed to finally get a death warrant for an inmate named Gerald Pizzuto. He was convicted for killing a woman and her son over a gold claim. Pizzuto is dying of cancer and is asking for a natural death. While the parole board recommended it, Idaho Governor Brad Little won’t sign off. While the courts have stepped in, he is still on the hook. Are we so bloodthirsty that we have to rush the death of a man by merely a few months. And for what? Righteous retribution?

Idaho has a problem, like many other states, in obtaining lethal injection drugs. Drug manufacturers are hesitant to be associated with the process. Usually, these drug makers produce life sustaining medications, so to them, it seems antithetical to their mission. Plus, bad PR.

Idaho’s solution? We’re bringing back the firing squad. While it would be my own personal choice of execution method, it’s is clearly violent and bloody. Again, the firing squad? If we are to go that route, why not the guillotine? How about strapping the inmate to a pole and firing artillery shells at them, like North Korean dictator and despot Kim Jong-un did with his own uncle. Aren’t we more civilized than that?

Maybe more brutal is better? Death penalty supporters might have to face some tough moral questions if the process was even more stomach turning. Already, there is finally some pushback in Christian conservative circles about the absolute morality of it. Jesus didn’t really talk about things like abortion or homosexuality. He did seemingly make it clear his position on the death penalty when he halted the stoning of a woman. “Those without sin cast the first stone,” he told the angry mob.

Those without sin. Think about it. Not, “those without equal or greater sin, cast the first stone.” But of course, Jesus was a “love your enemy” kind of guy. Sometimes, his purported followers are not.

On a side note, stoning is still employed by some cultures to this day. The process is brutally horrific. By rule, stones must be fairly small. Essentially, a mob of people surround the victim and pelt them to death. It’s a slow, agonizing, and humiliating death carried out by friends and neighbors.

As an officer, we’re told inmates are locked up as punishment—not “for punishment.” The reality that they have lost their freedom is enough and they don’t need to be treated poorly. Some officers would forget that. That being said, isn’t a person losing their freedom for the rest of their natural life enough? Clearly, part of the punishment included in a death sentence is the knowledge they are a few pen strokes away from a certain and scheduled death. It seems psychologically abusive. It’s a constant reality for them. Is this right? I was surprised, though, that these men never lived without hope that an appeal would spare them.

In some ways, that hope is not misplaced. Many of the men I worked with eventually had their sentences commuted. Clearly ready to accept a life behind bars as an alternative. Fighting on has allowed others I worked with to have died a natural death instead. About a half a dozen inmates have passed while waiting on the row. And still, there have been only three executions in Idaho since the United States Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1977.

One inmate knew he was going to die on his own before the state could do it. He was already sick with HIV/AIDS when he hit death row; he even committed his crime with this knowledge in mind. He murdered another inmate in the prison. In its infinite wisdom, the Idaho Department of Corrections allowed maximum security inmates at the time to have softball bats on the recreation yard. He used it to “go yard” on another inmate’s head. His victim owed money and commissary to several gangs, and with days until his release, his lenders were going to make him pay one way or another. That death row inmate took on the hit, already knowing he wasn’t going to leave prison alive anyway.

Another inmate I worked with had no business being on death row. He was barely an adult when condemned. This young man killed his sister during a psychotic break. He had mental health issues and temporarily lost his ability to form cogent thoughts. The inmate’s name escapes me but his face doesn’t. He was a short, scrawny kid, and now, barely a man, was marked for death by the state for a moment out of his control. Are we okay with this?

I had to confront my own feelings about it when I went back to college. I gave a speech about the death penalty that asserted that if we have the death penalty then it should be carried out expeditiously, though maintaining due process. At the end of the speech, a friend of mine asked if it was appropriate for those who are neurodivergent to be held to that same punishment. I said something I now consider false in response to the effect of “trust in the court system.” She became so frustrated she left the classroom in tears. At first, I didn’t understand why she was upset. My answer seemed reasonable and logical. Then I realized, it showed a lack of compassion. And really, even the worst criminals are deserving of at least that. So it should go without saying that mentally ill or neurodivergent criminals be given some sort of mercy..

The life of a death row inmate is different than most. As you may have heard, they spend 23 hours a day in their cells. Only leaving to shower or spend an hour in a fenced in cage outside in a barren walled courtyard. It has no view other than cinder blocks outer walls. They have to look straight up to see the sky.

The only human touch they experience is when the officers cuff them and escort them to these places, and that touch is neither caring or comforting. They have to communicate with each other through the connected cell vents. They would pass notes occasionally by “fishing.” One inmate would toss a note onto the tier floor, and the recipient would use floss and a pen to corral it back to their cell. It was the only way for them to share with each other.

As officers, we were warned that death row inmates were most dangerous after receiving a death warrant. The thought was that an inmate facing immediate death would kill an officer in hopes that a trial for that new crime would buy them some time. I didn’t fear that those guys would ever attack me, actually. Though I was guarded against anything, most tried to be pleasant and respectful. Inherently, they were to be treated as unremorseful and violent offenders. And to some extent, with some inmates, that might be true.

Thomas Creech offered several times to kill anybody in the prison for me, provided I gave him access and a pint of ice cream. I didn’t doubt he would keep his word. Later, I would tell a cousin about this. “You should have preemptively given him a carton of rocky road,” he opined.

While some death row inmates were pleasant, others were not. That same week I met Creech, I had an incident with another inmate there. I was cuffing and escorting inmates to the shower. Mind you, I didn’t have a lot of experience handcuffing inmates. The procedure involved me opening the bean slot where the inmate would back up to it and stick his hands out. The first few cells went okay. Then, about five cells from the end I started to cuff the next inmate. He yells, “You motherfucker!” The next thing I know, he has hold of my arm, twisting as he pulled me into the metal door. I was terrified as I fought for my life, or at the minimum to escape major injury. Fortunately, a nearby officer helped wrestle me away.

I learned that I “slapped” the cuffs on him, rather than gently placing them on, which is customary for officers to do during routine cuffing. He obviously was angered by my ignorance and retaliated. That would result in some of his property being removed from his cell for a short time. There wasn’t much else to take from these men for punishment. Because of the restrictive nature of death row, the inmates were allowed televisions and radios. They were able to keep more property in their cell than normal. Though, some of that space was for legal papers so they could aid in their own defense. But really, that’s about it.

The inmates spent their days watching television, reading, and talking through the vents and cell doors. Some developed real artistic talent. However, access to art supplies was limited. One inmate made a small box out of folded chewing gum wrappers. It was an intricately woven, six-inch square which a few others would draw or color. Some even sent their art out in legal papers for their attorneys to sell on their behalf. Sometimes, I thought it was such a waste of talent, and a realization that even men and women who have done something horrific can have qualities that are truly human.

Carrying out the death penalty doesn’t just affect the inmates and their families. It affects the officers charged with the duty of ending someone’s life. A lieutenant I worked with suffered from post traumatic stress disorder because he commanded the party who led Wells to his execution. Lt. Rente was a dark skinned, short and stocky bulldog of a man. He was tough, but the inmates and staff respected him for being consistent and fair. It surprised me when he talked about the Wells execution affecting him. Him?

That man was as cool as a cucumber. One time, we were walking on death row. Remember, the inmates there must be separated at all times. Unfortunately for Rente, the officer in the control room upstairs accidentally opened all the cell doors on the tier at one time. As the death row inmates started to peek out, Rente, all alone on the tier, says “Go back to your cells gentlemen, this was a door test.” The inmates went back into their cells and Rente lived to see another day. He was unshaken—he was never shaken. The one time he talked about it in front of me, he admitted that the responsibility bestowed upon him affected him to his core.

The process for a death warrant goes like this. In the weeks and days before the execution, the inmate is placed on suicide watch. It’s happened before and the state doesn’t want to be denied the opportunity to carry it out. In the early 1900s, one condemned man jumped from the third floor of a cell block while being escorted to the gallows, fatally splattering himself on the concrete below. Since then, the state made it a priority to never be denied again.

The evening before the execution, an inmate is served their last meal. Prior to midnight, a contingent of officers arrives at the cell along with a spiritual representative of the inmate’s choosing. The crew is wearing masks, but the inmate knows who they are. The group then travels to the death chamber, following along with a wheelchair. Just in case the inmate is so distraught or resistant, they can’t bring themselves to walk.

The death chamber for Idaho is a little portable building housed inside the maximum security prison fences. It sits unassuming and could easily be mistaken for storage. Inside, there is a room that contains a bed with straps. The bed is designed to force the inmate’s arms to be splayed out for better access to veins. Separated by a window is another room with seating neatly lined up for witnesses.

When the inmate arrives, he is given the opportunity to say any final words. Wells made no statement. Medical staff start an IV. Then, like in the movies, if there is no last minute call, the warden reads a declaration and orders the administration of the chemicals. I can’t even imagine the horror the inmate experiences in those last few moments. The realization that minutes after the toxic mix of chemicals enters their veins, they will succumb to them.

According to East Idaho News, the cost of housing Gerald Pizzuto for his 37 years on death row is 1.3 million dollars. Cost analysis highlighted by the report shows that housing a death row inmate is, on average, a million dollars more than life imprisonment. Think about it: each inmate is not only housed in maximum security with equal staff despite being in isolation. Then there is the court cost of appeals and the state needing to pay prosecutors to keep those condemned on the row. Of course, these are pecuniary considerations. The human toll is much more costly.

The inmates, their families, the victim’s families, and even the lives of staff are cut deep by this process. Let’s be honest, the death penalty is more emotional than logical. Our base human instincts are to want revenge—but haven’t we evolved past that?

As I sit here and drink my morning coffee, thinking about Thomas Creech and his impending death—barring some last-minute clemency—I will pray for him and those who knew him. And I will pray for his victims’ families. I don’t pray often, but this seems right.

Tonight, I will enjoy a bowl of ice cream in his honor and hope that we can find a way to reconcile our feelings about anyone’s death.


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