July 08, 1996 12:00 PM

DANNY PALM, AN EX-NAVAL COMMANDER who was, until last fall, living a quiet life in retirement, communicates these days by telephone from behind a thick glass window at the San Diego county jail. For on June 5 a jury found Palm, 52, a man with no criminal record, guilty of murdering John Harper Jr., an unemployed auto-body worker. Palm does not deny pumping nine .45-caliber bullets into his neighbor last November. But he doesn’t think he deserves to go to prison. “I was terrified of him because he was so unpredictable and violent,” says Palm, due for sentencing on Aug. 23.

Indeed, Harper, 48, often seemed a menacing figure, and Palm’s conviction has led to a furious protest among those who believe the shooting was justified. According to dozens of complaints to police over a three-year period, Harper would cruise the streets waiting to terrorize the residents of the tidy Spring Valley suburb of the city. He would play “chicken” with drivers by darting across the center line before veering off, or chase them at night with his highbeams on. Sometimes he passed vehicles on the right, forcing them into oncoming lanes. “We lived in constant fear, constant terror,” says Theresa Tingle, 42, a laboratory technician whose run-ins with Harper caused her to seek psychological help.

Despite Palm’s conviction for second-degree murder, the question of guilt is still being debated. Many in San Diego have blasted authorities for not taking action—even though Sgt. Don Crist of the sheriff’s department says Harper’s transgressions, mostly tail-gating and other forms of harassment in traffic, were considered minor. Yet on radio talk shows, in newspaper columns and in coffee shops, people defend Palm. “The irony,” wrote resident Marcia Dutton to presiding judge William Mudd, in one of many pleas for a lenient sentence, “is that people can now sleep better at night because of what he found the courage to do.”

As visible as he became in Spring Valley, Harper spent much of his life adrift and anonymous. The son of a retired Navy man and his wife, he was imprisoned for two years in 1967 for burglary and was arrested twice more for the same crime in 1976 and 1986, although charges were dropped. Married briefly—his elderly parents say they can’t recall the name of his wife—he moved around the San Diego area after his release from prison in 1969, finding work as an auto-body worker. He returned home in 1987 and moved into a trailer next to his parents’ house in order to look after them, says his younger sister Juanita Luiz, a technician in Hemet, Calif. Proudly pointing to kitchen cabinets Harper built from old picture frames, his mother, Laura, 88, says her son “was always busy, always going, going, going.” There may have been a reason for his energy. An autopsy revealed high levels of methamphetamine in his blood, suggesting he had been a longtime user.

By contrast, Palm, who lived some 600 feet away, seemed a model, if somewhat stolid family man. “He does not show very much emotion,” says his wife, Carol, 51, who met her husband when they were students at George Washington University in the early 1960s and is the mother of their two grown daughters. “But he was loving with the kids, [just] not in a warm, fuzzy way.” After 29 years in the military, including several tours in Vietnam, Palm moved to Spring Valley in 1989 and devoted himself to his Japanese garden.

That is, until late 1992, when Harper nearly ran into him as the two drove down Helix Street near Harper’s house. Palm wrote it off as bad driving, but Harper did it again in 1994, then tried to ram him from behind in April 1995 when he chased Palm in his car down Highview Lane near his home. “I got one to three hours of sleep a night worrying how I could protect my family from him-,” says Palm—a sentiment his neighbors soon shared. Last summer, with Palm as co-leader, about 30 of them formed the Spring Valley Safe Streets Action Group, which had one goal: to force Harper out of town.

Harper’s father, John Sr., 80, blames Palm for “turning the whole community against” his son—and it did become an obsession. Palm kept notes on Harper, spied on him with binoculars and even rummaged through his trash. When Melody Hurt, a teacher’s assistant, charged Harper with reckless assault after he rammed her car in 1994 and pursued her and her 9-year-old daughter on a frightening, 10-minute car chase, Palm testified against his tormentor. A jury deadlocked in the case, and on Nov. 28, two hours after avoiding a second trial by pleading guilty to reckless driving (and receiving probation), Harper appeared at Palm’s house in his 1985 El Camino. He parked for a few minutes then drove away.

Fearing retaliation for his testimony, Palm grabbed his handgun and followed in his tan Acura. He pulled up to Harper and, while pointing his gun at him to scare him away, says Harper told him, “You and your family are good as dead.” Those were his last words. Palm shot once, hitting Harper in the head, then shot him eight more times—stopping to reload his gun—after Harper’s car had rolled down a hill and into a neighbor’s yard. At Palm’s trial, Judge Mudd said there was “zero evidence” that Palm was in danger and did not allow him to plead self-defense.

Amid the calls for leniency and a possible appeal by Palm, the voices of Harper’s relatives—perhaps the only ones mourning his loss—have been all but muffled. “My brother should have been judged and tried for his crimes—whatever they were—by a jury,” says his sister Luiz, “and not by Danny Palm, who served as judge, jury and executioner all in one.”

CURTIS RIST

MARC BALLON in Spring Valley

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