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Palmer: Hill Not Guilty; Says Partner Was No Killer

August 26, 2012
By FRED CONNORS Senior Staff Writer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Donald "Duke" Palmer does not want to carry guilt about his co-defendant Edward Hill's murder convictions into Ohio's death chamber.

Palmer, 47, faces lethal injection on Sept. 20 for the May 8, 1989, murders of Steven R. Vargo, 41, and Charles W. Sponhaltz, 43, along Belmont County Road 2 near the Jefferson County line.

In a July 27 sworn declaration to the Ohio Parole Board, Palmer said Hill is another victim in the case who did not kill anybody.

Following his Jan. 23, 1990 conviction, Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Jennifer Sargus sentenced Hill on Feb. 6, 1990 to life in prison with parole possible after 30 years for the aggravated murder of Vargo, 15 years to life for the murder of Sponhaltz, two terms of 10-25 years for the aggravated robberies of both men, and two three-year terms for firearm specifications.

Former Belmont County Prosecutor estimated Hill, 46, would not be eligible for parole until 2061 when he will be 95 years old.

In his plea to the parole board, Palmer wrote, "I have lived with the knowledge that I've taken the lives of two men, made widows of their wives, and left their families to struggle without them.

"There is nothing I can do or say to undo the pain I have caused. Nothing! I have lived a lot of regrets.

"The families of Mr. Sponhalz and Mr. Vargo deserve peace and justice. (They) deserve to be given exactly what they ask of the State of Ohio. I know that my life should be forfeited.

"There is, however, another victim in this case - Eddie Hill, my so-called co-defendant."

Palmer said Hill did not know, nor could he have anticipated, that Palmer would kill either man and that Hill was not on the road when he killed Vargo.

"Eddie Hill was in so much shock from seeing me shoot Charles Sponhaltz in his presence, that he jumped over the hill on the side of the road and tried to hide from the reality of what I had done," Palmer wrote. "He was not present and could not have seen my encounter with Mr. Vargo and the second shooting. (Hill's) only crime that day happened after both men were shot dead. He made a poor choice of answering my pleas for help."

He told the board he filled with shame and remorse and regrets the harm he caused to the victims' families and to Hill and his family.

He wrote, "As this board administers its justice in the recommendation to be made to the Governor on the justice deserved by the Sponhaltz and Vargo families, it should also make a recommendation for justice and some type of clemency for Eddie Hill.

"My sole request of this board is to please do not let me die with the guilt of Eddie Hill's murder convictions. He is not in any way guilty of any kind of homicide. It was all my doing."

Palmer said he met with Hill's attorneys prior to Hill's trial, provided a tape-recorded statement, and offered to testify at trial to the facts of the case.

"I deeply regret letting my new appeals attorney talk me out of my agreement to testify on behalf of Eddie Hill," he wrote. "I was more concerned about the repercussions for my own case that I was for seeing Justice done for (Hill).

"I reluctantly followed my appeals attorney's advice and declared that I would refuse to testify under the Fifth Amendment if called to testify as a defense witness for (Hill). As a result, I was not called as a witness and the jury in Eddie Hill's trial never heard the full facts of what happened that day."

Hill's attorney, Barry Wilford of Columbus, said he plans to file a commutation of sentence petition with the parole board based partly on Palmer declaration and partly on Hill's prison record.

"We will be seeking to modify the murder and aggravated murder convictions," Wilford said. "In support of his application, Eddie Hill will bring forward 23 years of a very positive institutional record. He has performed valuable community service, has a superior work history at the institution, and has strong family and community support."

He said he does not expect the parole board or the governor to accept Palmer's declaration at face value.

"We will be showing other evidence that supports what Palmer said, but we don't believe his declaration should be a get of prison free card," Wilford said.

Belmont County Prosecutor Chris Berhalter said he does not want an innocent man sitting in prison, but he questions if Palmer can be believed.

He said, "The real questions here are can Mr. Palmer be believed and is (Hill) innocent? He was convicted by a jury based upon evidence, and this evidence did not include testimony from Mr. Palmer. Mr. Hill declined to call him as a witness.

"If Mr. Hill is innocent, what kind of man would allow him to sit in prison for 23 years of a life sentence?

"We also cannot forget that Mr. Palmer has previously told completely different versions of what happened on May 8, 1989 when he brutally murdered his two victims. Therefore, how can we believe him now?"

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