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."
In Washington state, hundreds of miles away, Don Rafuse will listen for word that the execution is over and that Parsons is dead.
"I am not anxious to see people die," he said. "I will not feel happy, but it will be a relief to know the system did persist and prevail."
Twelve years ago, he remembers making the long drive from Washington to California as soon as he heard his son-in-law was missing. He stopped at pay phones in a half dozen cities along the way. Each time, there was nothing new to add to the story.
At Salem, Ore., the call home resulted in a sickening blow and the painful realization Richard Ernest was never coming home.
"At the time it was incomprehensible. We could not understand why anyone would kill Richard, who would be a friend to anyone. In our hearts, we knew whatever happened, Richard didn't instigate the confrontation."
But Joseph Mitchell Parsons did insist it was Ernest who started it all, Ernest who put his hand on his leg and made a sexual pass at him. In a rage and panic, Parsons lashed out with a 5-inch double-edged dagger.
The Ernest family scoffs at Parsons' version of the slaying. "Everybody who knew Richard knew that was the biggest lie in the world," Rafuse said.
Twelve years later, Parsons isn't talking about the crime or himself. He refused to grant interviews to all but one reporter -- a Deseret News correspondent -- and insisted the details couldn't be released until after his death.
There's very little to know about the man.
When he was arrested in Las Vegas at 18 for pulling a robbery, he told Nevada authorities he was an orphan. When he was arrested five years later for murdering Ernest, he repeated the same story.
It's not true. His mother is alive and well in Florida. He has a sister. At Parsons' request, his brother and his cousin will share his last meal with him at the Utah State Prison Thursday evening.
The trio will dine on three Burger King Whoppers and two large orders of fries. Parsons has also ordered in a chocolate shake, chocolate chip ice cream and a package of grape Hubba Bubba bubblegum as part of his last meal.
It's hard to guess why Parsons lied about his family, but prison authorities say the inmate, through his low-key nature, has been intent on shielding his relatives from the notoriety of his crime.
His former attorney, Greg Sanders, said Parsons once called himself the forgotten inmate. A Nevada Parole Board official described Parsons as an "unremarkable" inmate until he fled from a halfway house in Reno the summer he killed Ernest.
Sanders said he doesn't believe anyone is looking forward to Parsons' death.
"There's not a lot of enthusiasm over this. I get the sense that is the system rolling forward, and he gets rolled over."
During his years in Utah, Parsons' mother has visited him infrequently. Prison, plus the years, changed him.
"When I first met him, as a much younger man, he was cocky," Sanders said. "Over time, he has definitely matured."
So has his victim's widow.
Beverley Ernest admits her husband was leaving California because of their troubled marriage. She wonders now if they could have repaired the damage, and it hurts to realize she'll never have answers.
But she also knows she's grown up a lot in the past 12 years, and she likes to think Richard Ernest would have liked the change.Comment on this story
"I think we could have been good friends. I know Brian, our son, would have had a better life. There isn't a time that goes by that I don't think about what my son missed. When Brian graduated from high school, you can't share that pride with anybody but the other parent. Brian doesn't get to see that in Richard's eyes, that he would have been proud of him."
By 12:05 a.m., if Parsons doesn't back out and the procedure goes as planned, Parsons will be dead. At the completion of the three-minute procedure, Utah will have executed its sixth man since 1977.
And Beverley Ernest says she will be able to present a gift to her husband, even though his body is buried in a little town cemetery in California.
"This is the last thing I can do for Richard, it is our last gift to him, to see it right through to the end."