LUCASVILLE - As Donald Palmer prepared to die Thursday morning by lethal injection, he turned his head toward the witnesses in the adjoining room and offered these final words:
"To the Vargo and Sponhaltz families, I want you to know I have carried you in my heart for years and years. I'm sorry for what I took from you. The Lord has taken from me what I took from you. I know what it is like to lose a parent, sibling and child. I wish I could bring it back to you, but I can't. I hope the pain and hurt die with me here today. May God bless you and give you good lives. I'm sorry."
The state of Ohio executed Palmer at 10:35 a.m. Thursday for the May 8, 1989, murders of Stephen Vargo and Charles Sponhaltz. Members of both victims' families attended the execution at the Southeastern Correctional Facility in Lucasville and watched Palmer enter the death chamber shortly after 10 a.m. Thursday. Palmer positioned himself on the table before corrections officers strapped his body to the table with his arms outstretched on either side.
Sponhaltz's widow, two daughters and a niece looked on, as did Vargo's widow and a family friend. On the other side of a partition separating the viewing room into two sections, two clergymen and Palmer's attorney witnessed on his behalf. Media witnesses and penitentiary officials lined the wall at the rear of the room.
Once Palmer was secured to the table, a curtain closed across the window and witnesses watched through a video monitor as the execution team inserted needles into Palmer's arms.
Tiffany Nameth, Sponhaltz's widow, remarked that she did not recognize Palmer when he walked in. She said later that the last time she saw him he was smaller and had long hair, unlike the much heavier and buzzed-cut Palmer she saw on Thursday.
With the needles in place, the curtain opened and an attendant held a microphone near Palmer's mouth and asked if there were any last words.
Palmer then offered his final remarks. He then turned away and the injection started. Some witnesses wiped tears as the process continued until a medic pronounced his death at 10:35 a.m.
Following the execution, Tiffany Sponhaltz Pugh, Sponhaltz's daughter, said, "I have been told over and over again from both family and friends that seeing the execution is something that I didn't want to do. They said that it would be an image that stayed in my mind forever. However, I have expressed to them that it would be much better than the image that I currently see in my mind when I think of my father's murder. In my mind I see my father's body tossed into the back of his truck lifeless and his cold dead eyes staring off into the distance.
"However, knowing that Mr. Palmer stated in court that the only thing that he saw when he closed his eyes at night in his cell was the eyes of my father, that makes me feel good in a way knowing that the actions that he took that night haunted him in such a way that he wasn't able to close his eyes and rest. Along with his last words, I believe that he regrets what was done. I do feel differently because he is dead. I feel that a big weight has been taken off my shoulders. The man I hated for so many years is gone. The closure is there; however, now I must walk the road to forgiveness and learn how to forgive him."
In a brief meeting with reporters after the execution, the families agreed that justice has been served.
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said Palmer arrived at Lucasville from the Chillicothe Correctional Institute shortly after 10 a.m. Wednesday. She said he spent his last hours visiting with his children, former wife, attorney and spiritual adviser. He watched television, listened to the radio and talked on the phone with friends and family members. He also wrote in a journal later given to his daughter, and he wrote some letters.
"He was cooperative with staff members and his demeanor remained calm," she said.
Smith said Palmer's last meal request included chipped ham and cheese with fresh tomatoes, a loaf of wheat bread, a bag of nacho chips, some peanut candy snacks, hazelnut ice cream, cheesecake and a cola.
ODRC Director Gary Mohr talked to reporters just prior to the execution.
"This the most solemn task that we have," he said, "but it is a job we have to do. I must be involved with it to make sure it is a humane process and that we are in compliance with all policy issues."
Smith said Palmer's body will be cremated at state expense and the ashes will be given to his family.