Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Impending Execution of Donald Palmer

Donald Palmer sits on death row awaiting execution by the people of Ohio on 20 September 2012. I suspect he will not survive the day.

I have not found an appellate decision providing a summary of the crime. I therefore offer the following summary provided by The Forgiveness Foundation.
Donald Palmer is scheduled to be executed at 10 am EDT, on September 20, 2012, at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.  Palmer is convicted of killing Charles Sponhaltz and Steven Vargo along the side of County Road 2 in Belmont County, Ohio, on May 8, 1989.  Palmer, now 47, has spent the past 23 years on death row.
On May 7, 1989, Palmer, along with his sister Mildred “Angle” Patterson and Edward Hill, drove from Columbus, Ohio to Belmont County, Ohio in Hill’s brown Dodge Charger. On May 8, Hill and Palmer drove out past the residence of George Goolie who had dated Palmer’s ex-wife, Cammy. Cammy was Hill’s sister. Allegedly, Hill and Palmer were going to rob George or burglarize his residence. In February 1989, George’s house had been robbed and George had asked his friend, Charles Sponhaltz to check on the house when he drove by. 
Around 5 pm on May 8, Hill’s vehicle collided with the back of Charles’ white pick up. There was no damage to either vehicle. However, Palmer got out of the vehicle he was a passenger in and shot Charles twice in the head. Steven Vargo was a passing motorist who stopped to see if he could help. When Steven got out of his vehicle, Palmer shot him twice in the head as well. 
Palmer and Hill placed Charles in the back of his truck and abandoned it in a field near the scene of the crime. Steven and his vehicle were left at the scene of the crime. Matthew Rutter saw Charles’ white pick up driving quickly in the opposite direction of the crime scene, followed closely by a brown Dodge Charger. Matthew then came upon Steven’s body and his abandoned car. Matthew tried to help Steven and when he did not respond, Matthew called the police. Charles’ body and truck was discovered seven tenths of a mile away. Both bodies had also been robbed. 
Prior to the murders, Palmer and Hill had been stopped by a police officer who verified that Hill was the owner of the truck. After the murders a description was given of the truck and the police officer recognized it as likely being the same vehicle. 
Police found Palmer and Hill on May 16, 1989, and brought them in for questioning. At first, Palmer denied knowing anything about the murders. Police then told Palmer that they had evidence linking him to the crime. Palmer confessed to the murders and gave the police a detailed account of what happened.

Palmer claimed to have accidentally shot Charles as he attempted to break up a fight between Charles and Hill. Palmer then claimed to have shot him again to make sure he was dead. Palmer then admitted to shooting Steve because he was afraid Steven might have witnessed something. While in police custody, Palmer admitted numerous times to killing Charles and Steven, telling the story many times. 
During his trial, Palmer testified that he never meant to kill Charles or Steven. The murders occurred in such a short period of time that he never had time to stop and think about what he was doing. However, Palmer denied telling police he shot Charles a second time to make sure he was dead. He also denied telling police he shot Steven because he thought he was a witness.
Edward Hill was also tried and found guilty on two counts of aggravated robbery and two counts of aggravated murder. He is serving a sentence of 35 years to life in prison. 
The Forgiveness Foundation has recently received a letter from Donald Palmer. We have learned that while Donald was raised in a Protestant Church, he never had a relationship with his Lord and Savior until he entered death row. Donald has accepted his punishment; “I am guilty of murdering two men, destroying two families, and failing my own. My punishment is just.” Donald does not know why he committed the murders.
I oppose any and all executions in which the person to be executed might be factually innocent of the crime for which he is scheduled to die. In all other cases, I stand mute.

No one, not even Donald Palmer, argues that he did not shot and kill the two victims. Therefore, in the case of Donald Palmer, I stand mute.

ADDENDUM (20 Sep 2012)
Donald Palmer was executed by the people of Ohio as scheduled.

The Case of Preston Hughes III: 14244

I should probably refer to Preston's first confession as Gafford's first confession. It might confuse the readers, but I suspect it would be more accurate.

Preston didn't write that first confession, or the second one for that matter. He signed the first confession, and the second, but he wrote neither of them. Sgt. Dennis J. Gafford of the Houston Police Department wrote the first.

The issue to be considered in this post is whether the confession that Gafford wrote, using a typewriter rather than a pen, told his story or Preston's story. Were the words in that confession those of Preston Hughes or those of Dennis Gafford?

To begin, I ask you to engage in a brief mental exercise. I assume each of you has been into a convenience store that is neither very close nor very far from your house. Assume if you wish that the store is a bus ride away. I now ask that you recall the specific address of that store.

My guess is that none of you can. I certainly can't.

If we are to believe that Sgt. Gafford merely recorded Preston's words as he spoke them, then we must believe that Preston Hughes is one of the few among us who can recall the street address of each business he walks into. From Preston's (or Gafford's) first confession:
I was feeling good and fell asleep on the bus and then didn't wake up until the end of the route at Westheimer and Hwy. 6. I walked a couple of blocks to a Circle K at 14244 Westheimer and called for a cab.
Thanks to the fine, understanding folks at Google, here's a picture of the convenience store currently located at 14244 Westheimer Road, Houston, CA 77077.

It's not a Circle K, it's a Super K. It may have been a Circle K at the time, but it was a Super K when the Google camera car cruised by. The point is that its street address is identical to that found in Preston's (or Gafford's) first confession.

On reflection, it should have been obvious from the beginning that Gafford was typing the confession as he wished. No one talks like this, particularly someone putting a needle in his arm.
My name is Preston Hughes III, and I am 22 years old. I was born on December 24, 1965, in Buffalo, New York. I now live at 2310 Crescent Park, #138A, Houston, Texas.
It's not even necessary that Preston gave Gafford the detailed information in those two sentences. Gafford clearly knew Preston's address. Gafford made it clear also that he reviewed Preston's file before interrogating Preston. Gafford probably had the details before he began the interview. I suspect Gafford began every interview statement he ever typed in similar fashion, though none of his interviewees ever spoke in such a way.

Given even our limited discussion so far, we realize there are least two ways in which we might identify segments of the first confession that are Gafford's story rather than Preston's. First, the story segment might be too specific. Second, the phrasing might be too stilted, too unlike the fashion in which someone might speak.

With those two rules of thumb now in mind, consider the following segment.
I went back into the apartment and that's when I took the knife off of my belt and put it in my closet. I put in a box in the bedroom closet on the floor. The box is a brown cardboard box with clothes in it and the knife is stuck down on the side. The closet is in a bedroom to the right as you go toward the back of the apartment, the bedroom with the twin bed in it.
Whoa!  That's both specific and stilted. Who talks like that? Who gives that level of detail?

I have an idea! Let's look at the photographs the HPD (admitted they) took of the closet in question. Let's see if the pictures will help us make sense of this.

Here's the first picture, standing outside the closet looking in.

I can see two cardboard boxes from here, so it's good that Preston didn't just say "I threw the knife in a box." It was nice that he was so specific about which of the two cardboard boxes "in the bedroom closet on the floor" that he put the murder weapon inside. He put it inside "the brown cardboard box with clothes in it." That way, the HPD wouldn't have to search both of the brown cardboard boxes, on the floor, in the closet, in the bedroom on the right at the back of the apartment, the bedroom with the twin beds in it.

Here's a closer look at the brown cardboard box with clothes in it.

And here's a closer look still.

Just as Preston (or Gafford) said, the knife (at least it's sheath) is visible right on the side of the box. It couldn't get any easier than this. The HPD would't even have to search the entire box. The knife and the sheath would be right there on the side, in plain view if you looked from the top.

Here's the knife and sheath now, placed on the floor.

They look just like Preston (or Gafford) said they would.
The knife is an Army knife with a rusty blade that is about 5 or 6 inches long. I carry it in a grey sheath on the right side of my belt.
The blade is 5 or 6 inches long and the sheath is grey, just as Preston (or Gafford) said. I used to think that stain near the tip of the blade might be blood. Now I realize that it is rust. At least that explains why the HPD never attempted to match the blood from the knife with Shandra's blood type, or Marcell's blood type. There was no blood on the knife.

We can debate until we're blue in the face about rather the story told in the first confession came from Preston, or from Gafford, or from some combination of the two. We won't know because someone, one of the two people just mentioned, does not want us to know. That someone choose not to preserve the interview by turning on the video recorder made available precisely for such purpose.

Depending on which of the two individuals told the story found in the first confession, there may be great irony preserved therein. Recall that Sgt. Gafford attempted to damn Preston Hughes by claiming that Preston exhibited guilty knowledge of the crime, though Gafford himself later (and unwittingly) proved that Preston did not. Assuming that the words in the first confession are those of Dennis Gafford rather than those of Preston Hughes, then Gafford unwittingly proved his own guilty knowledge, that of an illegal search and seizure, one he denied under oath during Preston's trial.

If Preston Hughes did not provide each and every detail of the knife, the sheath, and their location, then Sgt. Dennis J. Gafford knew something he could not have known had the HPD not searched Preston's apartment prior to 2:58 AM.

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