By Ron Donoho
Last year’s murder trial of retired Navy Commander Dan Palm received widespread media coverage. The proceedings were covered gavel-to-gavel on Court TV. Newsmagazine shows 20/20 and 48 Hours traveled to suburban San Diego to do not one, but two reports each. While in the spotlight, Palm was labeled both victim and vigilante. Some consider him a hero who stood up to the neighborhood bully. Others say he took the law into his own hands. Whether or not people think he committed a justifiable homicide, his story touched a national nerve.
Sentenced to 10 years, Palm is quietly serving time in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility on Otay Mesa. Though he has not made public statements since testifying during his trial, Palm recently granted San Diego Magazine an exclusive interview.
First, some background:
On November 28, 1995, Palm shot and killed John Harper Jr., a neighbor who lived at the bottom of Palm’s winding Spring Valley road. Last year, a jury declared Palm guilty of second-degree murder. In a highly unusual sentencing move earlier this year, Superior Court Judge William D. Mudd reduced the charge to voluntary manslaughter. Deciding not to risk doing more time, Palm chose not to appeal. Counting time served and with good behavior, he could be out of prison by 2004.
But some believe Palm never should have had to stand trial, or should have received a much lighter sentence.
As San Diego Magazine reported in March, Palm’s attempts to persuade law enforcement to take control of what he and neighbors perceived as Harper’s life-threatening games behind the wheel of his El Camino were futile. In essence, the neighbors were left to fend for themselves. Advised to form a citizens’ group and asked to document Harper’s transgressions, Palm painstakingly collected 142 complaints from more than 60 people.
The group’s efforts finally managed to get Harper arrested. A detective overheard him say: “I know the neighbors have done this to me. If they think it was bad before, just wait till they see me now.”
Harper was given probation. After leaving the courtroom, he drove to the homes of neighbors who had testified at his trial. He parked for several minutes in front of Palm’s house. When Harper left, Palm followed, carrying a .45-caliber pistol. Palm confronted Harper. Palm says Harper told him: “You and your family are good as dead.” Those were Harper’s last words. Palm shot him nine times, stopping once to reload. An autopsy revealed Harper’s body contained a high level of methamphetamine.
Palm’s jury was never allowed to consider his state of mind, though he says living with Harper’s reign of terror caused him constant physical and emotional duress. Palm’s lawyer—defending his first-ever murder case—was not allowed to plead a self-defense case.
Elisabeth Semel, a more seasoned lawyer who represented Palm at his sentencing hearing, argued that encarcerating Palm was a travesty. She said law enforcement let him down. And that his Superior Court trial was flawed. She claimed the judge gave improper instructions, the prosecutor crossed the line of courtroom propriety and Palm’s trial lawyer was disturbingly unqualified. Her arguments gained Palm a lesser charge and sentence, but that became a Catch-22: Palm would have appealed second-degree murder (which in his case could have carried a 25-year sentence).
What follows are excerpts from a face-to-face conversation with Palm inside the Donovan Facility and subsequent correspondence via the U.S. mail. It should be noted that the California Department of Corrections does not allow the media to make special appointments to interview inmates in state facilities. However, inmates have the same access to reporters as they do family and friends.
What is a typical day like in jail?
I awake at 5:15 a.m. and proceed to breakfast around 6:30 a.m. I return to my two-person cell and I have free time. Sometimes I go to the central law library to work. My official working hours are from noon to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. I spend most of my free time reading or corresponding with many friends, family members—and people I have never met who have been touched by my story. Lunch is around 11:30 a.m., and dinner is at 4:30. I am usually in bed by 9:30. My cellmate has a television set and radio that he allows me to use in his absence.
How are you dealing with day-to-day life?
I am in extremely good spirits, in a very positive frame of mind, and enjoy my associations both with inmates and staff. Without question, I suffered from cultural shock for a few months, when first jailed after my conviction, but I am now as comfortable as anyone could be under the circumstances. Carol, my wife, my lifelong love, visits me every Saturday, Sunday and holiday, for five to six hours, whenever visiting is permitted. My daughter, Beverly, and granddaughter, Kasey, who is 21¼2 years old, visit me every Sunday. Friends and neighbors visit frequently. Carol and I always enjoy catching up on their lives and hearing about their adventures.
Has media notoriety helped or hurt you in life behind bars?
It has only helped me. Most inmates are sympathetic to my plight, because they know that I had no choice of action. They all know what methamphetamine does to people. It makes chronic abusers aggressive, violent, paranoid and extremely irrational and unpredictable. Most think, wrongly, that I shot John Harper Jr. intentionally, because they are not aware of the whole truth. But they know I had no choice but to protect my family. They respect me for that. The prison staff, almost unanimously, seems to realize I was protecting my family and should never have been prosecuted. Generally, I think people know in their hearts that a travesty of justice took place.
Do you think of the shooting often?
Not any longer. During the year following the shooting, I thought of it many thousands of times. For about the first four months, I was in a traumatized state of confusion, not understanding what had happened or why it had happened. I reviewed it many times daily in my mind. Reviewing the autopsy report of John Harper Jr. made me realize that I would never understand everything that had happened. I was able to accept that fact from then on. I rarely think of the shooting now, and then only as a direct response to questions, like yours.
How can someone be compelled to shoot so many times and not recall any of it?
First, I would like to say that I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist and I do not understand what happened or why. I can only express, honestly, what I remember of what I experienced. I do not understand the why. I do know the psychological term for the experience I described having during the shooting is “dissociation.” I have also heard it called being in a “fugue state.” It occurs sometimes when people experience life-threatening situations such as close combat during war, and it has been reported many times by police officers caught in life-threatening situations such as gunfights. It is common knowledge among law enforcement and prosecutors that many cases of dissociation have occurred involving members of law enforcement. Frequently they will have no idea how many shots were fired. Frequently they will think that they fired far fewer rounds than are demonstrated by post-shooting investigations.
In fact, there are cases where an officer has reloaded his weapon and he does not remember that fact after the event. It is as if he is operating on automatic, relying on his repetitious training, without conscious thought or decision.
I felt one of the most fundamentally dishonest things about my prosecution was the fact that the prosecutor rebuffed this concept, knowing full well that the actions of many law-enforcement officers have been successfully defended, historically, utilizing this very concept. Sometimes this phenomenon is referred to as an “overkill situation,” when many more rounds are fired at a threat than are rationally required.
What role did San Diego law enforcement play in all this?
My neighbors and I feel that had the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department not abandoned our community, this needless death would never have happened. We begged, we pleaded, we demanded, we wrote many county officials seeking help, and no effective action was taken. In fact, we, the Spring Valley Safe Streets Action Group, never even received the courtesy of a response to our many letters sent to law enforcement and county government officials. We were abandoned by those whose salaries our taxes pay. John Harper Jr. was allowed to continue, unchecked, on his reign of terror. All of my neighbors feared someone would die. We feared that Harper would kill one of the members of our family, or one of a neighbor’s, with his automobile.
You were criticized for not being remorseful during your trial. Are you sorry now?
Your question seems to carry with it some baggage. It would appear from the question that you have accepted, as fact, that I was not remorseful. This is a very difficult question for me to answer, and it is impossible to answer with simply “Yes, I am remorseful.”
I have been sorry that I shot John Harper Jr. from the instant that I realized that I must have shot him. I would never have willfully committed such a violent, mindless act of aggression against another human being. But you have to put his death in the context of the more than six months that led up to the shooting, in order to understand the psychological dynamics of what went on in my mind.
Most people have no idea of the thousands of events and pieces of information I filed away mentally during that time prior to the shooting. Certainly, the jury was prohibited from learning many of the factors that led to my state of mind at the time of the shooting. Without that information, a person will never be able to understand how and why this situation could develop to its ultimate conclusion.
Without placing yourself in my shoes—appreciating the fear, stress and terror that I experienced during this nightmare—it’s like watching the last three minutes of a horror film. The viewer sees the poor innocent monster vanquished by the main character. But he or she is unaware of why the action took place or how the main character found himself in those circumstances. It just will not add up; it cannot make sense when the last three minutes of the story is all that you see.
John Harper Jr. was known to my neighbors and to me to be a predator who attacked more than 60 people with his automobile. I knew 42 of those victims by name. I collected signed statements from them. Harper personally threatened me several times. He told me that morning, in a most convincing manner, “You and your family are good as dead.”
I believed then that he meant that threat, and I still believe it today. I knew from his past violent behavior that he was unquestionably capable of carrying out his threat to my family.
I have never felt an instant of guilt for shooting Harper. I have never experienced shame. I know in my heart that even had I been conscious of the act—which I wasn’t—that it was morally justifiable and done only in defense of my family. I never had an intent to kill Harper. I never made a decision to shoot at him. And I never bore him malice. Indeed, because of my experiences of the preceding six months, I only felt fear and terror. I also felt great anguish and frustration at the refusal of law-enforcement personnel to take the danger to my family and neighbors seriously.
I am sorry that I lost control of my behavior and shot John Harper. I am not sorry that this legitimate threat to the safety of my family and neighbors has been removed.
Do you consider yourself a hero?
Absolutely not. I was simply one of many victims—not a hero. A hero is someone who consciously makes a decision to act in spite of great personal danger. I made no decision, and beyond that, my actions were triggered by the greatest fear and terror I have ever experienced in my life. Because of my overwhelming fear, I believe, I lost conscious control of my behavior and a tragic loss of life occurred. That was not heroic in any way.
Has your outlook on life been changed?
Yes—profoundly. I used to expect justice at the hands of men; I do not now. I used to be very conservative; I am far less so now. I used to support the death penalty; now I strongly oppose it. I used to believe in the three-strikes law; now I realize that it was misrepresented to the voting public and is being seriously misused by prosecutors here in San Diego.
Actually, though, I am now a more positive, joyful person. My outlook is totally positive in spite of the realization, at 52 years of age, that life isn’t fair. I can accept what happened as having been necessary for my enlightenment and rebirth as a Christian. My life has been changed forever—for the better—as a result of the crucible of fear, terror, pain and abandonment I experienced.
I have never been closer to Carol than I am now. I treasure family and friends more than ever before. They say you learn who your friends are when you get into trouble. I was a fortunate man, indeed, to have found friends who, without a single exception, showed me their love and support, in thousands of ways, throughout this ordeal. We have never valued them as much as we do now.
What would you say to people who might find themselves in a similar situation with a neighborhood bully?
First, I would say that the terms “bully,” used to describe Harper, and “vigilante,” used to describe me, were terms fed to the press by the San Diego County Sheriff’s representatives and by the Harper family and their attorney. Neither are, or were, appropriate. I was never a vigilante. I never took the law into my own hands. When forced to defend my family, I shot Harper.
Certainly, no one should ever take the law into their own hands. Give law enforcement a reasonable opportunity to correct the problem. If they don’t deal with the problem—and don’t be surprised if they don’t—then I recommend that you sell your house and move to another location. Yes, sell your house and move is my advice. Before you and your family are victimized and traumatized any further.