Scott Burns was a young county attorney who had never tried a homicide case when Joseph Mitchell Parsons entered his life.
Parsons, a Nevada parolee, was arrested and charged with killing California motorist Richard Ernest near Cedar City back in 1987.Ernest's body was found covered with a sleeping bag about mile north of a rest stop where authorities say the two stopped to sleep. He had been stabbed nine times, including once in the heart, and once in the throat.
Parsons was captured in the dead man's car with the victim's belongings in nearby Sevier County.
Because he was a Nevada parolee convicted of a felony and because the victim was robbed of his car and other belongings, the killing became a death penalty case.
Now, 12 years later, Parsons has dropped his appeals and says he wants to die. The execution is scheduled to take place at 12:01 a.m. Friday, when two paramedics will administer an IV that will carry the lethal dose of chemicals into his body.
Back when the Parsons case was first unraveling, it was an awesome challenge, an awesome weight for Burns, a rookie lawyer who had been elected Iron County attorney just nine months earlier.
"I was scared to death, I have to be honest," he says now. "I wanted to make certain that whatever the outcome, there was not an error in the record, an error with respect to any of the proceedings."
Now, 12 years later, Burns will be among the government representatives to view the scheduled execution of Parsons at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
This conclusion to what has been one of the more brutal crimes in Iron County is not one Burns anticipates with great enthusiasm.
"I have no morbid sense of curiosity," he said.
Just into the practice of law for a little more than two years, Burns remembers the case being one that took on unusual twists and demanding much of his time.
The dimensions of the case were such that the young prosecutor wanted to present much of his evidence at the preliminary hearing.
"I had witnesses in three different states. I had a crime scene in three different counties, and I wanted to make sure all the evidence and testimony was preserved with the preliminary hearing record," he said. "People die, witnesses disappear."
Burns wanted that evidence in Richard Ernest's stabbing death aired.
But, during the hearing, everyone was shocked when Parsons orchestrated a damning blow to his own case.
"He stopped and said, 'Why are we doing this? I did it and everyone knows I did it,' " Burns recalled.
The admission ultimately led to a guilty plea, but the case was far from over. For Burns, it was just beginning. A jury of six men and six women had to decide if Parsons would receive the death penalty or life in prison. Burns was faced with the task of putting on his entire case during the penalty phase.
It became an obsession.
The prosecutor spent hours out on the highway, retrieving cigarette butts, grabbing weeds and other plants to match to the victim's car. He wrote search warrants for motel rooms and the car, and had arranged to meet a judge at 5 a.m. one day to sign off on the warrant.
"I was crossing Main Street in Cedar City, and I remember seeing this scrap of paper on the ground. It had tar on it, and I remember walking over and picking it up, I was so in the mode."
The paper, of course, was miles away from the homicide, farther away from the suspect, and couldn't have had any link to the case.
"That's when I told myself to get a grip. That is how focused you get in a case of this magnitude."
Burns, however, was no stranger to the battles in the courtroom. His father was a former district attorney and had been a district court judge for 17 years.
"I grew up in the courtroom. I went to my first homicide when I was 5. I had been to death penalty trials before and well over 100 felony jury trials when I was growing up. It wasn't that I was scared with the atmosphere or with the procedure, but it was a very weighty case, and I wanted to do all the right things."
Burns, however, has never felt Parsons' death by execution should be up to him.
"That is not up for me to decide," he said. "I don't think that death penalty cases should be resolved in back rooms with doors closed among lawyers. I think the window should be open, I think the light of day should shine and the citizens of the community should hear every graphic, gory detail . . . and then in an open and public forum decide guilt or innocence, death or life."
In Parsons' case, they decided death.
"It was not a cause for celebration. I did not walk out the door and yell yippee. I did not see it as a win, or a loss," Burns said. "I think I would have felt as much pride in the system and the jury had they come to a different conclusion, but 12 years ago I am convinced they made the right decision, and I still am to this day."Comment on this story
Burns, who has kept in touch with the Ernest family over the years, says his presence at the execution is at the request of the victim's widow, Beverley. "She said she wanted me there."
Is he apprehensive about being a witness? Maybe a little but not much.
"I have been to more horrific crime scenes than I care to," Burns said, including a multiple homicide that haunts Burns to this day.
"After 14 years of stuff like this, seeing someone humanely put to sleep is not going to be a traumatic event, " Burns said. "I don't mean to be coldhearted, but that is the truth."