Dean Parker shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and stared downward. Four identical brown-granite headstones, each with an oval portrait, each with the same date carved on it: Feb. 2, 1990.
"Died on my birthday, buried on my wife's birthday," he said in a trembling voice, a scowl warping his face.
Beneath the stones lie his father, Carl "Bubba" Parker; his stepmother, Bobbie Jo; his 12-year-old half-brother, Gregory; and his 9-year-old half-sister, Charlotte Jo. After surprising two burglars ransacking their home, all four were shot, and their house was burned down on top of them.
Parker, 37, said his family spent $23,000 on the burials and stones. If a friend hadn't given them an extra plot, they wouldn't have been able to bury his parents side by side.
Nine years later, the two men convicted of the murders, Robert Simon Jr. and Anthony Carr, have yet to pay the price set by justice: execution. But the Parkers and other residents of one of the nation's poorest counties just keep paying and paying.
Quitman County had to raise taxes and take out a loan to cover the nearly $250,000 cost of their trials and automatic appeals granted to all death row inmates.
Now the county must hike taxes again or cut services to afford to hire lawyers for their second round of appeals after a February decision by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The cost, estimated at up to $30,000 a year for each case, may seem small, but every public dollar counts in this Mississippi Delta county, where unemployment is around 14% and 91% of the schoolchildren get free lunches.
"I know how the law goes," said Scott Parker, Dean's 34-year-old brother. "But now I know that I work 60 hours a week, and they take money out for my taxes. Part of that money is going to the guys who killed my daddy. That's not right."
If raising taxes would speed the killers' execution, he said, he'd favor it. But he doubts it will do more than cost folks money they don't have. "You can drive all over Quitman County and see how broke we are."
In Marks, the county seat split down the middle by railroad tracks, the inscription on the courthouse reads: "Obedience to the Law Is Liberty."
Quitman, a county of about 10,500 residents an hour south of Memphis, Tenn., is a patchwork quilt of cotton and soybean farms, many still referred to as plantations. There is little industry aside from a pool-cue factory and a specialty necktie plant. Many people ride shuttles to work at the casinos of nearby Tunica.
In this out-of-the-way setting, two outsiders committed a crime that one prosecutor said "read like the script of a horror movie."
It was pouring rain that Friday when Bubba Parker and his family returned home from Bible study. Prosecutors said Simon and Carr were there loading a pickup truck with everything they could steal, even the nuts and screws from a ceiling fan.
The killers tied Gregory's hands behind him and shot him in the back. His mother was shot in the chest on a bed. Charlotte Jo was sodomized and raped. Dean Parker believes his father was forced to watch.
"He had just about tore his wrists in two with the extension cord trying to get loose," he said as he stood on the pile of smashed brick and scorched wood--all that remains of the home. Someone cut off Carl Parker's finger to get his wedding band.
The county paid for three trials (Simon was reindicted and tried twice). Taxes were raised for three years, and it took the county more than five years to retire the loan used to cover expenses.
People here thought they were through paying until the Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated case that indigent death row inmates had a right to counsel in a second round of appeals.
Folks wouldn't object, said Bessie Sbravati, slicing bologna at the S+W Grocery & Fish Market, if the expense were for "something that's important to the county . . . where everybody benefits from it."
Everyone does benefit from the law's protection against being improperly convicted and unjustly punished, said C. Jackson Williams, the Oxford attorney who argued the case before the Supreme Court.
He said he had hoped the state would be held responsible for the costs.
"I certainly have no desire to see poor counties burdened by the administration of justice," Williams said. "But the truth of the matter is, if a prosecutor's going to make the determination that the death penalty is in order, then one thing he needs to take into consideration is that there is a real price attached to that choice."
People at Welch's Restaurant in Lambert, where the sign promises "country cookin' makes you good-lookin'," have a hard time swallowing that argument after what was done to their neighbors.
"I remember when this kind of stuff would have been dealt with in short order," antiques dealer Glenn Lamar said over a plate of beans, corn and "noodle surprise."
To further complicate things, the Parkers were white and their killers are black.
In the circuit clerk's record room, one can still see red leather-bound volumes of "white" marriage records. Still, most in town insist race plays no role in this case.
"They need to do what they need to do to those people," Cleotha Saddler, a black first-grade teacher, said at the Dining Room, a restaurant on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Marks. "Black or white or whatever, a crime is a crime."
But the restaurant's owner, Valmadge Towner, who is also black, said race plays a role too often in arrests and convictions to deny anyone a proper appeal.
"I think a lot of times we have a tendency to convict rather quickly," he said.
Two bills pending before the Legislature would fund a statewide team of public defenders just to handle death row appeals. Atty. Gen. Mike Moore's office supports the idea, hoping it will speed the process. There are 63 people on Mississippi's death row, but there hasn't been an execution since 1989.
Even if the bills pass, they are not expected to apply retroactively to the Parker case.