Victoria Palacios, who is stepping down as chairwoman of the state Board of Pardons and who is a self-described tough broad, spent the night before the execution of one of Utah's most notorious murderers chain-smoking through tears that dampened the scripture in her lap.
Her ashtray, empty for years, was overflowing with butts. When the tissues ran out she kept a roll of toilet paper at her side, clutching her rosary and repeating the 23rd Psalm."It was a strange scene. And I noticed the highway patrolman looking at me and I said, `Have you ever seen anyone behave quite this way?' And he said, `No ma'am, I haven't.' "
Palacios' January resignation after two years at the panel's helm became effective Friday. She has four years remaining in her term on the three-member board and now will serve under newcomer H.L. "Pete" Haun, an appointment she applauds.
For Palacios, the board's unanimous denial of clemency for Pierre Dale Selby, the so-called "Hi-Fi Killer" whose death by injection was the state's first execution in 10 years, was its most difficult decision in her eight years on the panel.
Two weeks before Selby died on Aug. 28, 1987, Palacios, Gary Webster and Paul Boyden represented his last hope for commutation after 13 years of unsuccessful appeals. He told them he had found God and no longer was the same man who during a 1974 robbery had tortured five people in the basement of an Ogden stereo store, forcing them to drink drain cleaner before shooting them in the head. Two of the maimed survived.
Palacios personally opposes the death penalty and, had she been a member of the state Legislature, would have voted to abolish it.
"The reason I would do that is that it doesn't do anything to reduce the violence that some people demonstrate toward others," she said in an interview.
Nevertheless, she is sworn by oath to act not as a lawmaker, but "in the stead of the executive branch of government deciding whether the power of grace should be exercised for some extraordinary reason."
Palacios said that while the board members found little to mitigate the sheer horror and brutality of Selby's crimes, and thus had to deny his appeal, they had remained open-minded and prepared for any eventuality.
"It could have been otherwise. I was prepared not to live in the state," she said, mindful of polls showing more than 90 percent of Utahns favored Selby's execution and considered it long overdue.
Not that Palacios is viewed by the state's inmate population as a pushover for parole. She said board members are drained of all gullibility after a couple of years granting or refusing probation or outright freedom to hundreds of inmates.
"Now I don't believe what I'm told unless it's backed up by behavior," said Palacios, who has been cursed and threatened by disappointed prisoners.
"I've heard the epithets - everything from `the Wicked Witch of the West' to things that are far less repeatable," she said.
Raised poor in the rough-and-ready mining town of East Carbon, Palacios says that in some ways she "has always been a tough broad." She was married at 19 and did not begin college until age 22, unaware that to fulfill her dream of attending law school she first would have to spend four years as an undergraduate.
After obtaining her law degree from the University of Utah, she earned a doctorate in law from the University of Nebraska. She was teaching law when her husband, a geologist, was killed in an auto accident on their youngest daughter's third birthday.
Since reappointment by Republican Gov. Norm Bangerter to a new six-year term and the board chairmanship in 1987, Palacios has worked 60-hour weeks and felt both reward and frustration. She finds inmates are tougher, more drug-ridden, a "distilled product" of a system that isn't funded for rehabilitation and recycles its inhabitants at a 40 percent rate.
There also are opportunities to smooth "the bumps and valleys" of the criminal justice system.
For example, Palacios said, "even though a crop of marijuana in Utah County weighs a lot more than a crop of marijuana in Salt Lake County, when we get those two offenders who have been extremely differentially treated, we have an opportunity to decrease the disparity."
Still, she believes two years in the chairmanship is enough for anyone grown weary of battling state agencies for the staff to adequately meet a caseload that has doubled since 1979 to 2,414 in 1988.
"I've been in public service for a long time now and I'm beginning to feel real negative about it. Not because I've been in it too long, but because I think it doesn't treat good people right," she said.
Palacios plans to spend the extra time she's devoted to the chairmanship on her two daughters, on earning a master's in business administration, on finishing a scholarly paper and perhaps on resuming writing a murder mystery.
She speaks warmly and longingly of an eventual return to the private sector.
"I'm a woman, a minority, with a J.D. and an MBA and my 12-year-old will be 14 by then. Hey, I could live an exciting life and have fun. I could go anywhere, do anything I want to."