Death wish
Execution comes 12 years after murder at rest stop

Published: Thursday, Oct. 14 1999 12:00 a.m. MDT

This is the story of the forgotten inmate and the little-known victim.

It is the story about the Nevada parolee on the run who catches a ride with a friendly California motorist and then stabs the motorist, Richard Ernest, to death at a remote rest stop in southern Utah.This is the story of how Joseph Mitchell Parsons, that Nevada parolee, is spending his time Thursday in a death watch cell, alone with a stainless steel toilet, a wooden bench, metal cot and a shower stall. A few minutes before midnight, he'll be led down a narrow hallway where he will turn the corner and slip into a room to lie on a gurney.

If he doesn't change his mind about dying, it is there that four straps will hold his body down; two will confine his arms and two will restrain his legs. He'll be asked if he has any last words, and at 12:01 a.m., he'll be left to die by lethal injection.

Beverley Ernest, the victim's widow, will watch. She says she's not looking forward to it.

"I have never watched anybody die," she said. "Not that I don't think he deserves it, but it will be hard to watch somebody else die."

Her husband, Steven Thurston, will be there to help her, as he has been the past four years whenever it has been tough for her to deal with her former husband's death.

Parsons' scheduled execution comes 12 years after he hitched a ride with Richard Ernest, then later stabbed him nine times, putting a dagger through the man's throat and his heart as the victim sat in the front seat of his Dodge Omni at a rest area near Cedar City. Within 24 hours of the slaying, Parsons was arrested and failed in his efforts to convince authorities he was Richard Ernest.

Early in his prosecution Parsons admitted to the crime, saying it was senseless to continue in the courtroom when everyone knew he did it. During the sentencing phase, medical testimony indicated the victim had no defensive wounds and more than likely was stabbed as he slept.

Iron County Attorney Scott Burns put the case before a jury to determine if Parsons would receive life in prison or a death sentence. The jury opted for death.

In another witness room late tonight, Burns will be there to watch the first man he put on death row be put to death.

For him, it's justice come full circle, and he has no regrets about the sentence handed down nearly 12 years ago by a 5th District jury of six men and six women.

"I think I was able to impress upon them that this was not only a senseless killing, but it was a very cold-hearted, selfish act. The fact that Richard Ernest befriended him and had given him a ride, the fact that they shared a meal together not too long before the murder," Burns said. "It was obvious Richard had confided in him personal things, and with all of that, he not only killed him, but within an hour of the killing, he is stuffing food down his mouth at a gas station in Beaver. I think that gives you an idea of who Joseph Mitchell Parsons is and what he is about."

Burns said he believes that idea is what led the jury to reach the sentence it did.

"I remember telling them to try to set aside the warm confines of this courtroom. We are here with carpet and wood, and we are all dressed nice and on our best behavior, but your job is to smell and to feel and to hear and see what happened on that day, and it was violent, and it was bloody, and it was heartless."

Jonathan Woods, the victim's brother-in-law, will not argue against Parsons' death, but he doesn't believe it accomplishes anything.

"This will never be done, this will never be over because he will never be back," Woods told the Deseret News from his home in Nevada. "The world is less for having lost Richard. I hope, for Parsons' sake, the world will be less for having lost him, but that is not how I feel."

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