If Joseph Mitchell Parsons changes his mind just minutes or even seconds before his execution by lethal injection, what happens?
Because the convicted killer has dropped his appeals, the process is clear.The outcome isn't.
What is unquestionable is Parsons has the right to say he has changed his mind. If the 35-year-old former Florida man hadn't dropped his right to appeal, it would easily be years and years before he'd be led into the execution chamber against his will.
Parsons, if he goes through with it early Friday, will be the sixth person to be executed in Utah since the 10-year moratorium on executions was lifted by the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1976.
Of those six, four voluntarily met their deaths, shortening the appeals process by saying they no longer wanted to live on death row.
Parsons expressed that sentiment this spring when he appeared before U.S. Magistrate Ronald Boyce. At that point, Parsons said he was determined to die.
"It's not fair to my family or the state of Utah or anyone else to continue the petition any further," Parsons said. "I've made peace with myself and my family, and it's time to move on."
A death warrant was issued by the district court in Iron County, the jurisdiction where the Aug. 31, 1987, slaying of Richard Ernest occurred.
Ernest, 30, was headed to Colorado for a new job in construction when he picked up Parsons, who was hitchhiking near Barstow, Calif.
When the pair stopped to sleep at a rest stop near Cedar City, Parsons stabbed Ernest at least nine times, plunging the knife 6 inches into Ernest's chest, slashing his face and sticking the knife in Ernest's throat.
Later, Parsons testified the killing came in response to a homosexual advance made by Ernest, although no evidence supporting that claim ever surfaced during the prosecution. A jury of six men and six women declared Parsons deserved the death penalty.
Now, 12 years later, it appears the jury's sentence will be carried out in a small room in a maximum security facility at Utah State Prison.
If Parsons does back down, a number of things must happen for the execution to not be carried out on Oct. 15.
The state intentionally sets the time of execution as early as possible on the day it is to happen -- in this case, 12:01 a.m.
Reed Richards, the state attorney general's chief criminal deputy, said that gives everyone time to react if necessary on execution day. "If there is a delay, they want to have the maximum amount of time to take care of whatever problems there are," he said.
In this case, Parsons has not exhausted his appeals process and has decided to go ahead with the execution. Any last-minute second thoughts, however, could send an attorney scrambling on behalf of the condemned man to find a judge who will sign the required order to override the death warrant.
"Technically, he has lost his right of appeals -- those time frames have passed based on court rule and law," Reed said. "Having said that, he certainly has the right to go to the trial court judge to set the execution aside."
That takes an attorney, however, and Parsons has fired his.
Greg Sanders, who was Parsons' court-appointed attorney for eight years, said he's tried to get into the prison to see his former client but has been turned away at the main gate.
"He does not want anybody trying to talk him out of this. He does not want to see preachers, he does not want to see lawyers, he does not want to see the ACLU," Sanders said.
Nevertheless, Sanders said he learned from the Department of Corrections there will be attorneys standing by should Parsons change his mind.
"I am on standby to their standby."
In addition, Richards said a representative from his office will be with prison staff to advise them of legal issues, and a group of people will be at the AG's office to monitor the so-called "hotline," set up between them and the prison.
The phone, bright red with blinking light, will be the messenger of any change should Parsons decide he doesn't want to die. Of course, simply because he backs out doesn't mean the execution won't proceed.
First, the attorney has to take the request for a last-minute stay to the trial court judge. If that judge refuses to sign, the order can be pursued at the state level or the federal level.
"If you find a judge at the last second who is willing to issue an order staying the execution, it is all back open again," Sanders said. "But it's all about having the right issue with the judge. It's up to the discretion of the judge. It ain't over until it's over."
However, Sanders said he would be surprised if a judge did grant the stay, even though Parsons is essentially dying years sooner than he has to.
"I don't think it is likely anything will happen to stop this execution. I don't know of any reasonable legal argument that would stop it," he said. "If I were the judge, I would probably not stay it because he (Parsons) had a fair opportunity to do it. He had the mental evaluation, and he had his lawyers spend hours with him talking to him about the alternatives."
Sanders said Parsons has been told he could make application with the state Board of Pardons and Parole to have his death penalty sentence set aside, and it more than likely would happen.
But Parsons has opted against that, Sanders said, because he doesn't want to spend most, if not the rest, of his life in prison.
"He sees the world as having no future," Sanders said.
Carol Gnade, executive director of the ACLU, said Parsons' wish puts the organization in an awkward position.
"We're in a little bit of a catch-22. In a way we have to honor his wishes, but there are two things going on here. We don't agree with what the state has to do. We believe the government should not be killing one of its citizens on Oct. 15. On the other hand, we would not push against his wishes. We have to respect that."
So, unless Parsons asks for the ACLU's help, it will not step in.Comment on this story
"We tried to see him early on but were turned away."
Iron County attorney Scott Burns, the man who prosecuted Parsons and one of the witnesses to the execution, said he has no idea whether the inmate will go through with his plans to die.
"For the sake of the victims, I hope he does. I think they have prepared themselves for closure. I think that he should be complimented in making what I think is the right decision. I doubt he is doing it for the victims, I am sure he is doing it for personal reasons, but nonetheless, it is an admirable conclusion," Burns said.
"I think it is also a comment on our death-penalty appeals process. When it gets to the point that even the defendants are sick of the delay, it brings out the inherent flaws in the system."