CHILLICOTHE, Ohio – Donald “Duke” Palmer’s worldly possessions include a television, a radio, hot pot, a lamp and a fan.
He will spend much of this week giving those items to his fellow death row inmates. Palmer is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
During a death row interview last week at Ohio’s Chillicothe Correctional Institution, Palmer, a Martins Ferry native who murdered Charles Sponhaltz and Steven Vargo along Belmont 2 near the Jefferson County line on May 8, 1989, offered regrets for the murders but said he’s ready to die.
“I killed Mr. Sponhaltz and I killed Mr. Vargo and I deserve to die for it,” Palmer, 47, said.
He talked at length during the hour-long interview about his victims and their loved ones but asked that his apologies not be published until after his death.
“I don’t want (my apologies) to be cheapened or be seen as a ploy to somehow stop what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m not trying to forgive my way out of this. I’m not.”
Palmer said he did not ask for clemency because he does not want to spend the rest of his life in prison.
“I mean, either way is a death sentence in prison,” he said. “I don’t want to sit around and wait for forever to come down. I’m just at the end of this. I’m tired. I want it to be known that it’s OK that I am being executed.”
Palmer said he has known his execution date for 14 months.
Asked how he is dealing with knowing the exact date and time he is going to die, Palmer said, “I’ve been dealing with it since day one. I didn’t know that I had more than five years coming. Then 10 years went by. And then 15 years went by. And then 20 years. … By the time 20 years go by, I was ready to die. I’m just ready.”
While confirming that Ohio is not putting an innocent man to death, Palmer said “No” when asked if he received a fair trial.
He said he appealed for a new trial in an effort to get to the truth about what happened.
“They didn’t convict me of the truth,” he said.
“Now, like I said, I killed these two guys. So I know that I deserve to die for this. But, they didn’t convict me of the truth. They convicted me of innuendo. They convicted me of things that didn’t happen. They put on evidence of things that just weren’t true.”
Palmer’s recollection of May 8, 1989, the day of the murders, goes like this: he awoke that morning in Columbus, Ohio, with “the shakes” due to his cocaine addiction. He went to a liquor store with his co-defendant, Eddie Hill, where they purchased a bottle of whiskey. Palmer said he drank 80 to 90 percent of that bottle during the day.
The two drove to Belmont County and eventually made their way to Belmont 2, near the Jefferson County line. There, they encountered Sponhaltz when Hill’s vehicle struck the rear the Sponhaltz’s vehicle.
Hill and Sponhaltz exited their respective vehicles, followed by Palmer who had a gun in his hand. Palmer said he attempted to punch Sponhaltz when the gun went off, striking Sponhaltz in the head. He then shot Sponhaltz once more in the head, killing him.
“Everything happened in a panic and fear and in bad, bad judgment, bad decisions, drunken judgment. I’m an addict, I’m afraid and I’m drunk. And it was just, you know, anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong and I made all the wrong decisions,” Palmer recalled.
Vargo appeared a few minutes later, stopping to see if the men needed help. Palmer also shot him twice in the head.
“Vargo died because he showed up at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Palmer said.
Asked about his lifestyle at the time, Palmer said, “I was a punk, and I was an addict. I was … a broken person. I was messed up because of my divorce. … That’s why I tried to commit suicide on Feb. 6, 1989. … That was my identity. Father. Husband. I got married the week after I turned 18 at the First Christian Church in Martins Ferry. And, this was my life. …
“I didn’t put God first in my life. And I know that’s why my life didn’t work out for me. But when I got divorced it broke me. I ran around and tried to fill a hole inside of me. Everything. Drugs. Sex. Running around. Fast cars. Motorcycles. Living in Florida on the beach and sailing. You name it, I did it. I had no fear of doing anything. And I was living fast and loose and, I don’t know, God wasn’t around then. Not in my life anyway.”
Palmer said he sometimes questions why he lived while Sponhaltz and Vargo died.
“If I had died, Sponhaltz and Vargo wouldn’t have been killed just a few months later,” he said, referring to his failed suicide attempt. “So it made me question why would God do that? Why would he let me live and these two die to go all the way to this point? But I did find an answer to the question. And the answer was because I didn’t put God first in my life. … People don’t understand when I say it but I thank God for death row. For putting me here. Because if he didn’t put me here, I would have died in my sins. … But now, I know that I’m saved. I know that I’m going to be fine. Every single one of us has a date.”
Palmer said he is a graduate of Martins Ferry High School. He said he worked for a time in construction in Charlotte County, Fla.
As for Hill, Palmer filed an affidavit with the Ohio Parole Board maintaining that Hill didn’t have anything to do with the murders of Vargo and Sponhaltz. Hill currently is serving lengthy prison sentences for his role in the murders.
Hill “didn’t kill anybody. He couldn’t have stopped me from killing anybody. He didn’t know that I was going to kill anybody. He wrecked the car. He was drinking and driving and wrecked the car. That’s the only crime he committed before the murders,” Palmer said. “I shot Sponhaltz. Eddie ran and jumped down over the side of the road. Didn’t even see Vargo get shot. But, he got 30 to life on Vargo and only 15 to life on Sponhaltz. … I feel really bad that I got this man doing a life sentence.”
Aside from the possessions he will give to fellow inmates, Palmer said he has a few treasured items.
“The only things that mean anything to me are my pictures of my kids and my artwork and my Bibles. That’s it,” he said.
Palmer also said he misses his hometown of Martins Ferry, where he spent his childhood.
“I loved Martins Ferry,” he said. “I loved waking up every morning right across from Nickles Bakery and smelling that bread baking. I could see the Ohio River every morning. I’d see the northern tip of the Island. You could literally walk right down over the hill and go fishing. Every day, I’d sit there and look at Wheeling.
“I miss those things. I remember the train bridge before it was gone. I used to walk across it. Go play on it. Jump off of it. Do all kind of weird things. It’s like Tom Sawyer but not quite, you know. … But I miss that place. That is home to me.”
Palmer said executions should be more public.
“If you have a law on the books, especially when it comes to punishment, if this is what you agree to, as citizens you need to take responsibility for what’s being done in your name,” he said. “I’m not saying there should be public executions. I’m saying that it should be more open. The public should know that it’s being done in their name. They should know that their representatives are the ones who are killing. My blood is on their hands.
“I think the death penalty should be on the ballot every year because if you’re going to kill people, you need to take responsibility for what’s being done. Period. Show me where it’s a deterrent. It’s going to deter me from ever doing it again. But, how is that going to deter the 24-year-old punk that’s out there now?”
Asked what he would say to death penalty protesters who may be outside of the prison during his execution, he said, “Nothing. They’re going to have to work that out for themselves.”
Palmer said there is some irony in his execution date because his mother died on the same date in 2003.
“I’m going to be executed the same date as my mom died,” he said. “My clemency hearing (Aug. 16, 2012) was the same date my son died, Aug. 16, 2005.”
Palmer will be moved from death row in Chillicothe to Lucasville 24 hours before his scheduled execution.
He will visit with his son and daughter on the night prior to the execution but he does not want them to witness it. His attorney, pastor and a penal chaplain will serve as witnesses in his behalf.
As the interview concluded, Palmer offered these final words: “I apologize and I hope that when it comes time for them to find peace that they will seek the Lord Jesus because there is peace there.”