Georgia executes Donnie Lance for 1997 double-murder

Georgia executes Donnie Lance for 1997 double-murder
Georgia has executed Donnie Lance, reporting the time of death as 9:05 p.m. Jan. 29. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

JACKSON — Georgia has executed Donnie Lance, reporting the time of death as 9:05 p.m. Wednesday.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Lance’s appeals Wednesday evening, clearing the way for his execution.

The high court, in two separate orders, declined to hear Lance’s requests that it halt his execution on grounds of alleged prosecution misconduct and lower-court rulings that denied his request for DNA testing.

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The orders were published at least one hour after Lance was to be executed at 7 p.m.

Lance was put to death by lethal injection for the 1997 murders of his ex-wife and her boyfriend in Jackson County.

One of Lance’s filings to the nation’s highest court said if his grand jury was not randomly selected, “his death sentence is invalid and unconstitutional.”

This afternoon, in a brief order, the Georgia Supreme Court turned down a similar appeal. The justices said Lance’s motion was “lacking arguable merit.” The vote was 8-0, with Justice Sarah Warren disqualified from the case because she had worked for the state Attorney General’s Office.

Lance, 65, who was sentenced to death in 1999, was given an injection of pentobarbital at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.

Before today’s filing in the U.S. Supreme Court, Lance’s legal team filed a separate appeal before the high court. The other appeal challenged lower court rulings that denied Lance’s request for DNA testing of the state’s evidence.

The nation’s highest court rejected both appeals.

Lance’s attorneys have also argued that the jury that convicted him and sentenced him to death should have known he had brain damage and an IQ that makes him borderline intellectually disabled.

Lance’s son and daughter have pleaded with officials not to kill him for murdering their mother.

Lance has maintained his innocence, and his grown children have spent months unsuccessfully calling for DNA testing on case evidence to confirm whether he killed their mother.

FAMILY’S FINAL VISIT

Stephanie Cape and her brother Jessie Lance visited their dad Wednesday afternoon and shared old stories and memories, trying not to think about his fate. The siblings said they’d both been thinking a lot about what their mother would think of the situation.

“I can’t imagine any mother would want this to happen,” Jessie told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Just let us keep our dad.”

Stephanie recalled what may be the last embrace she had with her father. He told her to remember that just because he’s leaving doesn’t mean he’s going anywhere.

One of the last things Donnie Lance told both his kids was that he had been saved and intended to go to heaven with all their other lost family members.

“We have spent our whole lives with this huge gaping hole in our hearts,” Stephanie and Jessie wrote in a recent letter asking the state for mercy, “but at least we’ve had dad at our sides. It’s almost impossible to imagine that it could get worse.”

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles declined Tuesday to grant clemency to Lance. The state board is the only authority in Georgia that can commute a death sentence. Now it is up to the courts to decide whether to issue a stay of execution, which is highly unlikely.

THE TERRIBLE CRIME

Lance’s death will mark the end to a complex and emotionally trying saga.

It began on Nov. 8, 1997, when Joy Love Lance, 39, who had worked as a secretary at a trucking company, was savagely beaten to death. Her boyfriend, Dwight “Butch” Wood Jr., 33, a truck driver and father of three, was shot in the back with a shotgun. The bodies were found at Wood’s home in the Maysville area, and police brought Donnie Lance in for questioning within hours.

Lance’s attorneys noted there was no physical evidence on him, in spite of the bloody nature of his ex-wife’s beating. The lawyers asked for DNA testing on wood fragments from what is believed to be the butt of the shotgun and a fingerprint from a shotgun shell found at the scene.

Jackson County District Attorney Brad Smith and state attorneys have said the evidence against Lance, “although circumstantial, was overwhelming.” Prosecutors maintain Lance was abusive to his ex-wife for years before the murders. Witnesses said they’d heard Donnie Lance threaten to kill her if she divorced him and became involved with Wood.

Lance was indicted for murder in the deaths by a grand jury that his attorneys have said was improperly picked. Instead of choosing grand jurors at random, a prosecutor allegedly packed it with friends and others he knew would be on his side, according to Lance’s defense team.

“The same clique of people sat (on the grand jury) for years and years,” said Katrina Conrad, an investigator from the Federal Defender Program. “(Prosecutor Tim Madison) picked jurors from one church in Jefferson, and the preacher there would preach about the grand jury indicting people.”

At trial, prosecutors painted Lance as a cold and calculated killer who committed the murders to exact revenge.

“I sat through many days of the trial in ‘99 and I heard what a monster this man was,” said Wood’s brother-in-law Terry Dearing.

After the jury convicted Lance, his trial attorney chose not to present any mitigating evidence to sway the jury from sentencing him to death. That was extremely rare.

Lance’s new attorneys say the jury should’ve been told about his brain damage from repeated head traumas. One of the injuries, Lance’s lawyers said, occurred when Lance was shot in the head during a previous confrontation with the murder victims.

In January 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Lance’s appeal, which included information about his trial attorney’s failure to submit any mitigating evidence in the sentencing phase of the trial. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying Lance’s lawyer should have presented evidence of his client’s cognitive impairments. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan joined in the dissent.

Sotomayor said multiple experts had testified in a previous hearing that Lance, a former race car driver, had frontal lobe damage. (The frontal lobe of the brain controls myriad cognitive processes, including memory, reasoning and language.) Sotomayor said the experts also agreed that Lance’s IQ was borderline for intellectual disability.

Lance’s children say he has been a positive force in their lives since going to prison, offering counsel and encouraging them to remember the golden rule. And his daughter’s daughter, a 2-year-old, calls Lance “Papa Don.”

Wood’s sister Tammy Dearing said she sympathizes with the Lance children, but their father made his bed.

“We as taxpayers have supported this man for too long,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There’s so many things we missed out on as a family. I watched Butch’s kids grow up without a dad.”

Wood’s father, Dwight Wood Sr., 83, told the AJC he was willing to live with whatever sentence was Lance’s fate. He said he wouldn’t protest if a stay of execution were issued — something that’s now moot.

He planned to attend the execution. “I’ve agreed to do that, reluctantly,” he said.