ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia man convicted of killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend more than 20 years ago is set to executed later this month.
Donnie Cleveland Lance, 66, is scheduled to die Jan. 29 at the state prison in Jackson, state Attorney General Chris Carr and Department of Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward announced Friday. Lance was convicted and sentenced to death in the November 1997 killings of Sabrina “Joy” Lance and Dwight “Butch” Wood Jr. in Jackson County, about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta.
Lance has exhausted his standard appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court declined last year to hear his case, though three justices dissented.
According to a Georgia Supreme Court summary of the case, Lance went to Wood’s home the night of Nov. 8, 1997, kicked in the front door and shot Wood in the front and back with a shotgun and then beat Joy Lance to death with the butt of the shotgun, the summary says.
There were no witnesses and no murder weapon was ever found. Lance's lawyers have argued that no blood or other physical evidence linked him to the killings but that investigators immediately focused on him to the exclusion of other suspects.
Courts have rejected his lawyers' request for DNA testing on evidence.
Lance had long abused his ex-wife, both during their marriage and after their divorce, according to evidence at trial. He had beaten her with his fist, a belt and a handgun; had choked her; and had shocked her with a car battery, the summary says. He had also threatened her with flammable liquid, guns and a chainsaw.
He had threatened multiple times to kill her and had asked a relative how much it might cost to hire someone to kill her and Wood, the summary says.
He had previously gone to Wood’s home in 1993 with a shotgun and kicked in the door, the summary says. On that occasion, he left after a child in the home recognized and spoke to a friend who was with him.
A jury convicted him and sentenced him to die in June 1999.
A judge tossed out his death sentence in April 2009, finding that Lance’s trial lawyer had failed to investigate and present evidence of Lance’s mental health history during the sentencing phase of his trial. The judge found that evidence of Lance’s mental impairment from brain injuries caused by car wrecks, a gunshot wound and alcoholism could have convinced the jury to spare his life.
The Georgia Supreme Court in January 2010 reinstated the death sentence. The state’s highest court found that even if the evidence had been presented, it wouldn't likely have changed the sentence.
Federal courts declined to toss out his sentence and the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2018 refused to take his appeal, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent joined by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.
The jury never heard about physical trauma throughout Lance’s life that caused frontal lobe damage and dementia or that his IQ put him in the borderline range for intellectual disability, Sotomayor wrote. Jurors also never heard that Lance’s mental problems could affect his impulse control and ability to follow the law, she wrote.
Lance’s trial attorney was convinced of his innocence and, therefore prepared no mitigating evidence for the trial's sentencing phase, Sotomayor wrote.
“The mental impairment evidence reasonably could have affected at least one juror’s assessment of whether Lance deserved to die for his crimes, and Lance should have been given a chance to make the case for his life,” Sotomayor wrote.
In a petition filed last month in Butts County Superior Court, Lance's lawyers allege that the prosecutor improperly packed the grand jury with people whom he knew would side with him. Because the grand jury was not randomly selected, they argue, Lance's death sentence is invalid and unconstitutional.
Lawyers for the state countered that those arguments have been previously raised and were rejected by the court, and the petition should be dismissed.
Lance would be the first person executed in Georgia this year. Jimmy Fletcher Meders was scheduled for lethal injection Thursday, but the State Board of Pardons and Paroles commuted his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole just hours before the execution was scheduled to happen.