SANDERSVILLE, Ga. -- Choking on sobs, Willie Palmer told a jury Thursday that he didn't kill his estranged wife or stepdaughter.
"No, I didn't. I did not," Mr. Palmer responded when asked if had shot to death Brenda Jenkins Palmer, 31, and Christine Jenkins, 15, on the night of Sept. 10, 1995.
By this afternoon, Washington County Superior Court jurors in Mr. Palmer's capital murder retrial should begin deliberations. Their verdict will tell whether they thought Mr. Palmer, 45, of Gough was believable on the witness stand.
"I loved my wife. I loved Christine. Even if I did that, do you think I would leave my baby there? No way," Mr. Palmer said as he choked back a sob.
Although Ms. Palmer and her daughter were killed in the rural Burke County town of Vidette, Mr. Palmer is being retried this week in Washington County. His retrial was moved to Sandersville after a mistrial was declared in April in Burke County.
The son of a sharecropper testified Thursday that the first he knew of the double homicide was the morning of Sept. 11, 1995, when his nephew Frederico Palmer came to his house with news about the killings.
"He said they were saying I killed them, and I knew that was a lie," Willie Palmer said.
Willie Palmer and Frederico Palmer were arrested that week and charged with the murders. Frederico Palmer told investigators he was with his uncle when Willie Palmer shot Ms. Palmer and Christine and then left the couple's baby behind with the bodies.
Frederico Palmer, who pleaded guilty a month after his arrest and is serving two consecutive life sentences, testified this week against Willie Palmer.
Willie Palmer told the jury Thursday that it was late in the evening of Sept. 10, 1995, when he picked up Frederico Palmer to go for a ride to Augusta. Under questioning, Willie Palmer said he couldn't remember the times, except that it was 12:55 a.m. when they returned to Gough, because he asked someone what time it was.
Willie Palmer denied threatening to kill Ms. Palmer, who had filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order against him. Several witnesses who testified this week about him threatening her were all lying, he said.
Willie Palmer testified that the murder weapon, a .22-caliber rifle, was his gun, but that the last time he saw it was in July 1995, a couple of weeks before he was jailed for violating Ms. Palmer's restraining order.
That gun was found in Bushy Creek, where Frederico Palmer said his uncle had thrown it over a bridge, along with gloves and tennis shoes Willie Palmer allegedly wore that night.
Willie Palmer denied the tennis shoes were his. In a scene reminiscent of O.J. Simpson's murder trial when Mr. Simpson tried on gloves that didn't fit, Willie Palmer pulled off his too-tight size 12 shoes and asked that the jury be allowed to see them. The tennis shoes found in the creek are size 11.
Also Thursday, in the final testimony of the retrial, jurors heard conflicting opinions about whether Willie Palmer is mentally retarded. His intelligence quotient ranged from 67 to 61 to 72, respectively, according to IQ tests administered in grade school, 10 years ago and again this year.
Dr. James I. Mash, the psychologist who administered the IQ test this year, testified that his findings, including the overall IQ of 72, led him to believe that Willie Palmer fits the legal definition of mental retardation.
Another psychologist, Dr. David Peterson, who evaluated the defendant at Central State Hospital, reached the opposite conclusion, he told jurors. The 72 score, combined with Willie Palmer's leader status while at the hospital, led him to conclude that Willie Palmer didn't meet the legal definition of mental retardation.
When jurors begin deliberations, they will have three possible verdicts: not guilty, guilty, or guilty and mentally retarded. The last verdict would mean Willie Palmer would automatically be sentenced to life in prison, because Georgia law forbids execution of the mentally retarded.
If the jury reaches a not guilty verdict, Willie Palmer would be released. If it finds Willie Palmer guilty, the retrial proceeds into a sentencing phase. After hearing additional evidence, attorney arguments and legal instructions, the jury would be asked to sentence the defendant to either life with the possibility of parole, life without parole or death.