Joseph Mitchell Parsons was just 18 when he put a .22-caliber revolver to the neck of a taxi cab driver in Las Vegas and threatened to kill him.
When he was 23, he plunged a 5-inch dagger into a California man at a remote southern Utah rest stop.Now, at 35, Parsons is facing a death of his own, having elected to drop his appeals and face his executioners on Oct. 15 in an 18-by-16 room at the Utah State Prison.
It was the Aug. 31, 1987, stabbing death of Richard Ernest in Utah that propelled Parsons to a cell on death row. But it wasn't what landed him in prison in the first place.
It was just starting to get dark on Oct. 16, 1982, in Las Vegas, where a man named David Poe Wood was waiting on a street corner for a friend.
Instead, he met Parsons, a chance encounter he says led to the worst day of his life.
"I was just standing there and he kind of casually walked up to me and asked me how I was doing, you know, and what I was up to," Wood told the Deseret News.
The meeting led to an armed robbery that would send Wood to prison for 13 years, a conviction he fought, later appealed and lost.
Parsons, because he was younger, because he pleaded guilty and because he appeared to have no criminal record, received a lesser sentence. He wound up serving four years before he was released to a halfway house in Reno in June 1987. In two weeks, he walked away. By the end of eight weeks, he had killed a man while on the run through Utah.
The events that sent a fresh-faced, clean-cut, well-dressed Florida boy such as Parsons to prison differ according to who relays the story.
Wood, an Oklahoma farm boy drawn to the glamour of Las Vegas, said he had no idea the robbery was going down. To him, Parsons is the pariah who stole half of his life, dragging him along as an unwitting partner in crime.
But credibility is everything in the courtroom.
Wood was portrayed by the prosecutor as an ex-con who had served time on a burglary conviction, the older of the two who orchestrated the entire event, the one who had the most reason to lie because he didn't want to go back to the pen.
Parsons, who testified against his partner, was painted as the 18-year-old orphan who had worked steadily at a job and never been in trouble, according to court testimony.
Wood got the maximum sentence. Parsons got off lighter.
The curious twist in this story is that it was Parsons who had the gun, Parsons who changed his story three times and Parsons who has parents in Florida. It was also Parsons who had three burglary convictions as a juvenile that apparently went undetected by authorities and, finally, it was Parsons who later admitted he lied on the stand to implicate David Wood.
The robbery was simple enough. No one questions the two met on the street on Oct. 16, and by 1 a.m., they were inside a taxi cab, where a robbery took place.
From there, everything becomes a matter of interpretation.
Wood said Parsons wanted to score a couple of joints of marijuana. He struck up a conversation and offered to buy the dope if they could find it. Wood said that sounded fine to him.
Parsons said they ought to catch a free bus to the Strip. There, they could look for some drugs. Wood agreed, but said he couldn't be gone long. In their brief time together, they ended up in a taxicab.
Parsons got in the back seat. Wood got in the front seat.
Wood was chatty, exchanging comments with the taxicab driver about the NFL strike happening at the time. He told the cab driver where to drop them off. As they neared the location, Wood said he heard a click.
Parsons had a gun on the driver.
Wood took the man's fares and his wallet. The driver was told to leave the cab.
Wood slid over and the two drove off, only to be captured in an alley minutes later by two citizens armed with guns (see accompanying story).
From the time the two wound up in jail together, the stories told by the two arrested men began to differ. Wood said he was an unwilling participant and said he took the money because he was intimidated by the gun.
"I heard this noise and I looked back and Parsons had pulled a gun out," Wood said. "And me and the cab driver looked at each other in awe, like 'What . . . happened?' "
The cab driver was screaming, Wood said, and so was Parsons.
"I'm telling the cab driver to chill, asking where the money is," Wood recalls.
At trial, Wood testified about his fear, and his relief that the crime ended in no injuries.
"You know, I didn't know this Parsons character," he said on the stand. "I'm just glad he didn't shoot nobody."
When police found the money on Wood, they asked him who it belonged to. He lied, he says, because he was desperate not to return to prison.
"I told them it was mine."
It is in the official documents Parsons' story begins to take on different hues. When he took the stand, he admitted he had the gun a couple of hours before he met Wood. He says he showed it to Wood after they met and they discussed the robbery beforehand.
Under questioning by Wood's attorney, the story played out like this:
"Did you ever know a Mr. Wood before this time?"
"No I haven't."
"You just bumped into him at 13th and Fremont?"
"Then all of sudden he goes, hey, you've got a gun. Let's go rob somebody?"
"That's exactly the way it was."
He insisted his testimony was not in exchange for a reduced sentence by the state.
Parsons told probation and parole authorities that Wood supplied him with the gun, and then added later it was Wood's idea.
In the end, Wood was convicted.
"At the time, all I could do is bawl in disbelief. It was like a nightmare, yet it was reality in that it happened to me, thanks to Joseph Parsons."
Just 23 days after Wood's conviction, Parsons swore out an affidavit that his testimony against the other man was false. In the document, he said he only testified against him to get one charge dismissed and a reduced sentence. That led to a motion for a new trial for Wood.
But even the judge was tired of the varied stories.
"I don't believe one word Mr. Parsons has to say," the judge ruled, adding he was, however, more inclined to believe Parsons' testimony under oath than any other rendition.
The motion was denied. Wood remained in prison.Comment on this story
For the past three years, Wood has worked in construction. He lives close to his father and brother and has a wife, having returned to his home state of Oklahoma.
"I'm trying to live a normal life, I reckon, as normal as I can. I work hard every day, do the right thing and take care of my dogs and wife," he said. "I finally got to come home. I don't know why I ever left."
He, too, was surprised to hear of Parsons' scheduled execution, and says he cannot hide his bitterness.
"It was an insane night in my life for me, meeting this guy, and it has cost me a great deal. It has cost me close to half my life, cost me dearly."