LUCASVILLE, Ohio — An Ohio death-row inmate used his last words Thursday to repeatedly apologize to the family members of his two victims and tell them that he hopes they can let their pain die with him.
Donald Palmer, 47, was executed by lethal injection at the state prison in Lucasville in southern Ohio about 23 years after he shot and killed two men he didn't know along a rural road.
"I want you to know I've carried you in my heart for years and years," Palmer told six women in the room who are the widows, daughters and a niece of the men he killed. "I'm so sorry for what I took from you ... I hope your pain and hurt die with me today."
Palmer also told the women that he knows the pain of losing a parent, a sibling and a child, and that he wished his execution could bring their loved ones back to them.
"I know it can't," he said. "I pray that you have good lives now. I'm sorry."
Shortly after that, intravenous lines in both Palmer's arms began delivering a fatal dose of pentobarbital, 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 was also shot.
Their daughters and widows spoke to each other before and during the execution, with one saying that the small, brick execution chamber with a metal bed was too elaborate for Palmer.
"There should be no sheet on that damn bed," said Charlene Farkas, one of Sponhaltz's daughters. "It should be in the ground in the dirt."
Some family members spoke to reporters after the execution, saying that they believed Palmer's apology was sincere but that it was too little, too late.
"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 other 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."
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's spoken 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.
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Ohio death row: http://www.drc.ohio.gov/public/deathrow.htm