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Quiet sadness and opposition surrounded Parsons' execution

Published: Friday, Oct. 15 1999 12:00 a.m. MDT

DRAPER -- Peggy Wilson and Steven Harper stood arm-in-arm just after midnight Friday, their silhouettes against the lights of the Utah State Prison less than a mile to the northwest.

Convicted murderer Joseph Mitchell Parsons had just been executed by lethal injection.Tears streaked down Wilson's face. She had gone to four executions before, but this time wasn't any easier. The death penalty, to her, is still murder.

Wilson and Harper walked across the empty dirt parking lot, where moments before it was scattered with less than 50 people.

Many of them were split on their opinions of the death penalty. The majority in attendance were criminal justice students from Weber State University. Their professor, Kay Gillespie, witnessed Parsons' lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. Friday, and required his students to attend the public gathering in the foothills southeast of the prison. Some of the students said the death penalty is often applied unfairly, while others viewed executions as the best way to deter future murders.

The public gathering place was designated as a place for any who wished to voice their approval or disgust with Friday's execution.

But besides some friendly debates, the death penalty demonstration resembled nothing more than a harmless pow wow. There were no chants, no candlelight vigils and only one sign.

"I'm still surprised that people can laugh and be joking within the moments of another person being murdered," Wilson said. "It's surreal to me. It's like I'm sitting in a movie theater watching this happen. It's not the society I want to live in."

In Salt Lake City, the Rev. Lee Shaw of St. James Episcopal Church embodied the sentiments of many who gathered at a vigil in the First Unitarian Church when he asked: "Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?"

Those who spoke at the candlelight gathering took the opportunity to rebuke the death penalty.

"Justice does not come from killing again. . . . Our criminal justice system has been turned into a criminal vengeance system. . . . Justice protects society. Vengeance rips society apart," Shaw said.

Others, like Parsons' one-time defense attorney Ron Yengich, who at times choked with tears as he spoke, condemned a state system that forces prison workers to participate in killings as part of their jobs.

Utah is full of hypocrisy, Yengich said. Specifically, he ripped Gov. Mike Leavitt and other Utah legislators for, on one hand, upholding Christian ideals and with the other throwing the switch at death row.

"Will we take the standards set by a convicted murderer as our own standards? Will we stoop to his level?" asked the Rev. Bartholomew Hutcherson of the Newman Center. The state should not have the authority to kill in our names, he added.

Stephen Clark, American Civil Liberties Union of Utah legal director, agreed, describing the state's action as a "darkness we can only hope never to embrace in our own souls."

Clark went on the call for a change in Utah and national law. He noted that Russia recently lifted the death sentence on 700 death row prisoners, and an all-time high 105 countries now outlaw state-sponsored killings.

At a later vigil, the mood took the form of silent acknowledgement.

The Kanzeon Zen Center of Utah hosted a ZaZen Buddhist meditation session held during the time Parsons was executed between 11:45 p.m. to 12:15 a.m.

Throughout this vigil, meditators sat in a dim, candlelit room and pondered on Parsons. The only sound breaking the silence was a single bell, rung at 12:01 -- the time Parsons was to die.

After the meditation, Nancy Gershin Gabrysch explained that the Buddhists didn't gather in protest but rather in sadness.

"He was facing one of the most grim things one can face," she said. "Not only dying but knowing the exact moment."

Suzanne, who requested her last name not be identified, was at the Point of the Mountain to show her support for the death penalty.

Her younger brother was murdered four years ago in Phoenix, Ariz. He knew his killer, who strangled and put a plastic bag over the 24-year-old's face. Suzanne has had a hard time forgiving any murder since her brother's tragic death.

"I know in my heart that it's not time (to forgive)," she said, "and that's why I'm in support of the death penalty."

So Suzanne did what she felt was best Thursday night -- she sat in her car avoiding the television cameras and photographers, with her sign supporting Parsons' death displayed prominently in her front window. It's her way of supporting the family Parsons' victim left behind 12 years ago.

"This is all about the victim," Suzanne said. "We wouldn't be in this situation if he (Parsons) did not hurt the victim.

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