Idaho’s Commission of Pardons and Parole heard pleas for mercy and cries for justice on Friday at a commutation hearing for Thomas Creech, the longest-serving man on Idaho’s death row.
Creech, now 73, has been on death row since 1983 for the beating death of fellow inmate David Jensen in 1981. His defense team is asking for life in prison without the possibility of parole, rather than death.
The commission granted Creech the commutation hearing in October, which postponed his execution, initially scheduled for November. Per Idaho law, the commission will make a recommendation to the governor, but the governor does not have to follow the recommendation.
Idaho saw that situation unfold after the commission granted Gerald Pizzuto Jr., a man on death row, a commutation recommendation in 2021. Gov. Brad Little denied the request.
Prior to Creech’s scheduled November execution date, the Idaho Department of Correction confirmed it did have the chemicals necessary to carry out an execution by lethal injection, something it has struggled to obtain in the past.
The Friday hearing brought emotional testimony from Creech’s supporters and the family of his last victim.
Ada County prosecutor: Creech has a history of violence
Ada County deputy prosecutor Jill Longhurst focused on the fact that Creech’s case spans across decades and he has five murder convictions in three states: Idaho, Oregon and California.
At the time of Jensen’s death, Creech was already incarcerated for the 1974 murders of Edward T. Arnold and John Wayne Bradford in Valley County. Creech also had prior convictions related to the earlier murders of William Joseph Dean in Oregon and Vivian Grant Robinson in California.
Creech also has a lengthy criminal history outlined in court documents.
“Thomas Creech has admitted to killing or participating in the killing of at least 26 people,” the U.S. Supreme Court noted in 1993. “The bodies of 11 of his victims — who were shot, stabbed, beaten, or strangled to death — have been recovered in seven states.”
Longhurst described Creech as a “sociopath” with “an utter disregard for human life.” She led by working her way through the list of murders that Creech openly confessed to and bodies that he helped law enforcement in locating, implicating him as the killer, despite the lack of charges or conviction in many of them.
He also had one murder charge in Arizona that he was acquitted on and a separate murder indictment in Oregon that prosecution later dismissed because Creech already had four life sentences.
Creech has also already had a second chance at life. He was initially sentenced to death for the Valley County murders, but after appeal, that sentence was reduced to life in prison. Creech then killed Jensen while incarcerated and again was sentenced to death.
“Mr. Creech is a serial killer, and in 1981 said he would kill again, and he did,” Longhurst said. “Thomas Creech is the most prolific serial killer in Idaho.”
She argued that in 1981, Creech wanted to be in isolation, rather than general population at the prison. When he killed David Jensen, he got what he wanted, she said.
Longhurst argued that Jensen was medically fragile due to a gunshot he sustained to the head prior to his time in prison that resulted in a craniotomy and part of his brain being removed. He was left blind in one eye, physically disabled and had a plate in his brain. Creech beat him with a sock full of batteries and stomped him to death.
“Mr. Jensen was the weakest, most vulnerable person in that penitentiary,” Longhurst said. She argued that Creech targeted him because of that vulnerability and when he took the stand during prosecution, he argued it was self-defense.
Creech’s attorneys said Friday that they were not arguing the Jensen murder was self-defense.
Longhurst showed pictures of Jensen’s bloodied body and the prison cell he died in, with its walls and floor coated in blood. She said that Creech wasn’t thinking of the guards who had to clean up the mess left behind, despite Creech now saying he supports and respects the guards.
“Thomas Creech hasn’t changed from the charming, likeable, sociopath he’s always been,” she said in closing.
Creech’s defense attorney argues he’s a changed man
Jonah Horwitz of the Idaho Federal Defenders Office said Creech is not the man he used to be. He also stressed that the number of people Creech has been tied to killing is inflated and urged the commission to focus only on convictions.
Horwitz said the principal at the heart of the death penalty is it is meant to be reserved for the worst of the worst.
“The question I would pose is whether the Tom Creech of 2023 is among the worst of the worst,” he told commission.
In a video presentation, Horwitz noted Creech’s positive influence on younger inmates and highlighted Creech’s family and friends, including LeAnn Creech, whom he married in 1998 while incarcerated.
“He’s where he is because of things he did when he was younger, but that’s not the person I know now,” LeAnn Creech said about her husband during the video presentation.
Horwitz said Creech had gone 28 years in prison without a single disciplinary offense, longer than most people serve for a murder sentence. Creech had one write-up in 2022, but Horwitz characterized it as a “misunderstanding over a card game,” and it was actually Creech who had to be taken to the hospital.
Commissioner Michael Ross later questioned Creech about the incident, because Creech has said he wants to be a mentor. Creech acknowledged he started the altercation.
“If you are a mentor and example, it seems as if the other people (present) were more of an example than you,” Ross said.
Kathy Niecko, a former nurse at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution, testified on Creech’s behalf, asking the commission for a commutation. Niecko said no other inmate has ever shown her as much gratitude as Creech. She asked that the commission “try to see him as the man he is now.”
“If this execution takes place, it will affect so many people, including me,” said Niecko.
Horwitz took aim at Bruce Robinson, a former defense attorney for Creech, who unethically subjected Creech to what he called “a truth serum experiment.” Robinson had also signed a contract for the rights to profit from Creech’s future story, something Horwitz deemed unethical.
He argued that Robinson’s actions led to inflated numbers around how many people Creech actually killed. Longhurst later pointed out that many of Creech’s confessions came before Robinson was involved in Creech’s cases.
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Some Idaho Department of Correction staff members testified or wrote in support of Creech, saying he was always cooperative and considerate.
Horwitz noted that former Ada County Prosecutor Jim Harris and Judge Robert Newhouse, who were involved in the initial sentencing for Jensen’s killing, now believe he should not be executed.
A copy of the petition requesting the commutation hearing in October 2023 included a statement from Creech’s initial sentencing judge. Judge Robert Newhouse repeatedly sentenced Creech to death for Jensen’s killing, even after appeals. But in the petition for a clemency hearing filed last October, Newhouse has changed his stance, saying he now believes that a sentence of life in prison without parole would be an adequate punishment, and that “an execution now would just be an act of vengeance.”
When Creech was last sentenced, Idaho district judges were allowed solely to sentence the person to death. The law has since changed, and a jury must now be involved in deciding whether the person’s crime should be punishable by death. Creech’s defense attorneys have repeatedly brought that up in appeals.
Horwitz also outlined Creech’s childhood, where he once suffered a cerebral concussion after being pushed into a cement floor at age 5. Creech’s father was abusive to his family, and his cousin once tried to shoot his mother.
Additionally, it wasn’t until 2018 when IDOC started allowing death row inmates to spend time outside of their cell. Prior to that, death row inmates spent 23 hours a day in isolation. Horwitz pointed to the isolation as another example that Creech had spent a considerable amount of time in punishment.
“Please vote for life and against more death,” Horwitz said.
Death row inmate apologizes before pardons and parole commission
In closing, Creech apologized and read a poem about what he would have told his younger self.
“I am very sorry for it,” Creech told the commission. “I’m sorry for my actions, for everything I’ve done. It was wrong. I wish I could go back and change it.”
Creech acknowledged that no one made him commit the murders and he is responsible for his own actions.
Commissioners Mike Matthews asked Creech how many murders he’s actually committed.
“I don’t really know,” Creech said, saying he got mixed up telling law enforcement over the years.
Commissioner Scott Smith tried to press Creech on the number of people he’d killed. Smith pointed out that Creech once said he killed nine people who had raped his former wife, and he’s been convicted of five additional deaths, making 14 murders.
“Is 14 an accurate number?” Smith asked Creech.
“No,” Creech responded.
The family of David Jensen testified last, all encouraging the commission to deny Creech’s request for a commutation.
The commission continued to deliberate Friday in executive session and will issue a written recommendation for the governor later.
Capital punishment policy issues before the Idaho Legislature
In 2023, the Idaho Legislature included the firing squad as a legal form of execution, because the chemicals used in lethal injection are hard to obtain.
The change came after the Legislature had already granted anonymity in 2022 to any pharmacy or agency that supplies IDOC with the chemicals used in an execution, in an effort to make them more accessible.
Last week, Rep. Josh Tanner, R-Eagle, introduced a bill into a legislative committee that would make lewd conduct with a child younger than age 12 punishable by death. Currently, Idaho only permits the use of the death penalty as a sentencing option in murder cases. That bill has not yet had a public hearing.
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