AMANDA LEE MYERS
LUCASVILLE, Ohio (AP) — Family members of two men killed along a rural Ohio road 23 years ago say that an apology from the killer the day of his execution was too little, too late.
The family members spoke to reporters Thursday following the execution of Donald Palmer, 47, at the state prison in Lucasville in southern Ohio for killing two men he didn’t know in 1989.
In his last words, Palmer looked at the widows and daughters of the two men he killed and repeatedly apologized, saying that he hopes they can let their pain die with him.
“I want you to know I’ve carried you in my heart for years and years,” he said. “I’m so sorry for what I took from you. … I pray that you have good lives now.”
The women wept and consoled each other as Palmer spoke before state officials sent a fatal dose of pentobarbital coursing through his veins, causing his chest to heave as he breathed heavily and his eyes fluttered. Later his head twitched up and down, and nine minutes after that, the prison warden declared his time of death at 10:35 a.m.
Palmer was convicted of aggravated murder in the May 8, 1989, shooting deaths of Charles Sponhaltz and Steven Vargo along a Belmont County road in eastern Ohio. Both of the married fathers were strangers to Palmer, and both were shot twice in the head.
Palmer and a friend had been staking out the home of a man who once dated his ex-wife when Sponhaltz rear-ended his truck and was shot, according to court records. Vargo was a passing driver who happened upon Sponhaltz’s killing and also was shot.
“When you murder somebody, what good is an apology?” said Tiffany Nameth, Sponhaltz’s widow. “You don’t go out and murder two people and expect to get sympathy. In my eyes, he didn’t deserve any sympathy.”
Sponhaltz’s daughter, Tiffany Sponhaltz-Pugh, said that she was happy justice was served.
“We finally have closure to this situation after 23 years,” she said, adding: “There’s nothing that can bring back my father.”
Just before the execution, Sponhaltz’s other daughter, Charlene Farkas, said that the small, brick execution chamber with a metal bed was too elaborate for Palmer.
“There should be no sheet on that damn bed,” she said. “It should be in the ground in the dirt.”
Palmer’s lawyer, David Stebbins — who also witnessed the execution — said the state followed its execution procedure to the letter as far as he could tell and reiterated that Palmer truly felt remorse for the pain he had caused and thought it was time that his execution move forward.
Stebbins, who hadn’t witnessed an execution before, called the process “so sterile and orchestrated.”
“I guess I haven’t sorted out all of my feelings,” he said. “It’s very strange to watch someone be put to death intentionally.”
In the 24 hours before his execution, Palmer visited with his grown daughter and son, his ex-wife and his spiritual advisers, said JoEllen Smith, a spokeswoman with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
She described one of the visits between Palmer and his children as “very emotional.”
“They prayed together, they were reading the Bible and singing,” Smith said, adding that Palmer also was calm and cooperative as he spoke to the execution team.
According to court records, Palmer told police that he and co-defendant Edward Hill were driving from Columbus to the Belmont County home of a man who had dated Palmer’s ex-wife and Hill’s sister.
As they were driving back and forth in front of the home, Sponhaltz — who was keeping an eye on the house — lightly hit the back of their pickup with his own truck and yelled at them: “What in the hell are you trying to prove?” according to the records.
Palmer then shot Sponhaltz twice in the head.
Vargo, a passing driver, stopped and asked “What the hell did you guys do?” Palmer told police, according to the records. Palmer then shot Vargo twice in the head.
Sponhaltz’s body was dumped in a field; Vargo’s was left on the road.
Hill, 46, was convicted for his role in the crimes and sentenced to 35 years to life in prison.
Palmer’s last meal on Wednesday night include a chipped ham and Velveeta cheese sandwich on wheat, ranch-flavored Doritos, peanut M&Ms, hazelnut ice cream, cheesecake and soda. He declined to eat breakfast Thursday.
Nine Ohio inmates are scheduled for execution through March 2014.