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How the death penalty works in Idaho

In a room with white walls and a clock hanging, there is a podium with a microphone and a bed/table with straps.
Scott Ki
Boise State Public Radio
Idaho's lethal injection execution room.

The death penalty in Idaho, as in every state across the country, has undergone significant changes throughout history as constitutional interpretations and public support ebb and flow.

Capital punishment has been legal in Idaho since its territorial days in 1864. Over a century later, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated all existing death penalty laws in the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia. That case temporarily halted executions as well until 1976.

In that time period, Idaho executed 26 people, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

State lawmakers here adopted a new capital punishment law in 1973, roughly a year after its previous policy was invalidated. Idaho wouldn’t execute another inmate after the temporary moratorium until 1994 when prison officials killed convicted murderer Keith Wells via lethal injection.

In the post-Furman era, Idaho has overseen three executions, the most recent being Richard Leavitt in 2012. Eight people are currently on death row.

State legislators legalized the firing squad during the 2023 session over concerns about the availability of lethal injection drugs, with many questions about the process still to be answered.

Below you’ll find the most current information about how capital punishment cases are treated in Idaho from start to finish:

Step 1: The prosecutor

In Idaho, defendants charged with first-degree murder may be subject to the death penalty, but they and their legal team must be given advance notice well ahead of any trial in order to properly prepare.

State law requires county prosecutors to submit in writing a notice of intent to seek the death penalty within 60 days of a defendant entering their plea.

If the defendant does not have private legal counsel, the court must appoint at least two public defenders to represent them.

Step 2: The trial and sentencing

It’s not enough to simply charge a person with first-degree murder and have a jury unanimously convict them.

Prosecutors must also get a jury, if a jury trial isn’t waived by the defendant, to unanimously agree there was at least one aggravating factor applicable in the case and that those factors can’t be mitigated by offsetting circumstances.

Those aggravating factors can include:

  • The defendant has already been convicted of murder in the past
  • It was a murderer-for-hire scenario
  • The murder was committed during another serious crime, like arson, rape or robbery
  • The murder was “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity”

Following any conviction, a special sentencing hearing with the same jury, if possible, is held to determine any aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
If the jury can’t unanimously agree on aggravating circumstances, the defendant is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Step 3: The appeals

The Idaho Supreme Court automatically reviews each death penalty sentence imposed by trial courts. This is separate from any appeal that may be filed by the defendant.

During both the Idaho Supreme Court review and any pending appeal, the death sentence is temporarily suspended.

The lengthy appeals process has contributed to the steady increase in the time it takes for a state to carry out an execution after the initial sentence.

The Death Penalty Information Center found death row inmates typically spend more than 10 years waiting for their execution or for a court to overturn their death sentence. It also reports more than half of death row inmates in America have been there for more than 18 years.

Step 4: The death warrant

After all appeals have been exhausted, or if the defendant chooses to drop their objections, the state must request a judge issue a death warrant for the individual, who must be executed within 30 days.

Upon serving the death warrant, the defendant is immediately transported to the state’s maximum security facility near Kuna, if they’re not already there, and put into isolated confinement.

During that time, specialized teams within the Idaho Department of Correction are mobilized to prepare for the execution. That step-by-step process and the outline of duties can be found in IDOC’s standard operating procedure manual.

Contrary to policies in other states and pop culture, death row inmates in Idaho are limited in what they can eat for their final meal. They can only be selected from standard options available from the prison cafeteria.

Step 5: The execution

Currently, lethal injection is still the primary method by which Idaho officials can carry out an execution.

State lawmakers in 2023 opted to reinstate the firing squad as an alternate method should the required drugs to administer a lethal injection not be available.

IDOC is in the process of creating a standard operating procedure for execution by firing squad, though it hasn’t yet been released.

The manual for the for the lethal injection procedures can be found here.

After being brought into the execution chamber, the medical team begins multiple intravenous connections to the inmate’s bloodstream in case the primary IV connection is interrupted.

The approved drug or drug cocktail is then given to the inmate via IV connection as the medical staff monitors their heart activity. Even if the inmate dies prior to receiving the full dosage of drugs, the entire set of chemicals must be administered.

Should there be problems with the first set of drugs or they do not kill the inmate, two backup sets of the chemicals will be available to use.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season.

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