'I had to forgive myself': Utahn granted parole 25 years after killing

A man convicted of murder more than two decades ago will get another chance to be a productive member of society.

Michael Paul Pierson, 44, has been granted parole by the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole. He will be released from the Utah State Prison on March 1.

Pierson was one of four people convicted in the Jan. 27, 1997, shooting death of Donald Dobson, 21, in West Valley City. On that day, Pierson, Clint R. Hartley, Melisa Parker and Jeffery Ray Burgener planned on going to a residence and stealing marijuana at gunpoint.

"We were going to get in the house, get the drugs at gunpoint, and then leave. That was the plan," Pierson told the board of pardons during parole hearing on Feb. 1, which was recorded.

Pierson said because his group had weapons, they thought the residents would be scared and simply comply.

"We had a false sense of security," he said. "We thought we were in control. We had guns."

But shortly after entering the house, Dobson was shot and killed, unintentionally, according to court records.

At trial, Hartley and Parker testified against Pierson, calling him the mastermind of the robbery attempt. Prosecutors described Pierson as a "serial predator" who set the plan in motion. Pierson was convicted of murder, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated burglary. He was ordered to serve two prison sentences of five years to life and 15 years to life, to run consecutively. His co-defendants pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter.

During his parole hearing, Pierson gave a somewhat different version of what happened that night in 1997 than what was presented in court. He said his gun went off after he was bumped, and that he and Hartley did not burst into the house and immediately start shooting. But, Pierson also admitted that what he did was "horrible" and that he deserved to be sent to prison.

He told the board that after he entered the house, one of the residents tried to escape by rushing through the group. That man bumped Pierson on his way out, causing his gun to go off. Then, Hartley shot the man "on accident," Pierson said.

Pierson described the incident as "chaotic" and believes they were only in the house for about three minutes.

"When I think about this 25 years ago, it's kind of in a blur for me. There are parts of it that are missing," he said.

It wasn't until later that night when they were watching the news that the group learned that Dobson had died.

During his parole hearing, Pierson also talked about his "horrible decision" to join a gang about five years prior to the murder. "Everything I did revolved around that gang," he said, adding that he "lived a really reckless lifestyle."

After was convicted and sent to prison, Pierson admitted his gang lifestyle caused him to have disciplinary issues at first.

"I was doing the same thing I was doing on the streets. Prison itself breeds contempt. And it's a suffocating environment, in particular for young men who participate or find identity with a gang. And so, I was doing what 19-, 20-year-old kids did," he said.

But Pierson said after a while he did some soul searching and recognized how he had hurt Dobson's family, as well as disappointed his own. He said he then decided to separate himself from the gangs that had been "brainwashing" him.

"And that changed every aspect of my life. That allowed me to grow in so many ways," he said.

From that day, Pierson said he found peace with himself and decided to live with a sense of purpose, despite the horrible decision he made when he was 19.

"I had to look in a mirror and had to be able to ask myself what I was. ... Was I a monster that was OK living this antisocial lifestyle? In my heart and soul I knew I wasn't that. And in my heart and soul, I had to figure out a way to remove myself from that. So for me, it was a matter of finding out who I was and what I really was. This crime I committed as a teenager, when I was a lost man, is not the individual you see today," he told the board. "It was unacceptable to me to live like that anymore."

The board member conducting the hearing noted that it had been a long time since Pierson had had any disciplinary write-ups at the prison, and he has completed numerous courses designed to help inmates improve.

Today, Pierson said he gets up and goes to work at prison, works out and studies. He is no longer associated with gangs and is also drug free. Pierson has even helped corrections officials create courses to help other inmates.

Mostly, Pierson said he has reached a point where he has found peace with his past mistakes.

"I don't feel sorry for myself. I earned my prison sentence. I deserved to come to prison," he said. "For me, I try to be a realist. When I was a kid, I did something that was horrible. And because of that, if you sit in here and you feel sorry for yourself, you can't grow. You have to find peace in your mistakes. You have to. So for me, I accepted my mistake. I accepted my punishment. And I don't wake up every day mad about it. This is how guys end up getting tattoos across their face. This is how guys end up with drug habits in here. This is how you destroy your soul. So I had to forgive myself."

Although none of Dobson's family members spoke at the hearing, Pierson apologized several times to the family for what happened.

"I've done a lot of time thinking about what you can say when you hurt a family like this. And I've thought about it for years … decades. I've taken 30, 40 classes about this sort of thing. And I don't know what to say except I'm sorry. That was never planned. That was young, dumb kids who was putting society, their son and themselves in danger. And I regret that deeply. I'm sorry."