A Georgia man convicted of killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend shouldn't be executed, his lawyers argue, citing the additional pain it will cause his children, evidence of brain damage not heard by the jury that sentenced him to die and his model behavior in prison.
Donnie Cleveland Lance, 66, is scheduled to receive a lethal injection Wednesday. He was convicted and sentenced to die for the November 1997 killings of Sabrina “Joy” Lance and Dwight “Butch” Wood Jr. in Jackson County, about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta.
The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only authority in Georgia that can commute a death sentence, plans to hold a closed-door clemency hearing Tuesday. The board on Monday declassified a clemency application filed by Lance's lawyers.
Stephanie Lance Cape and Jessie Lance, the now-adult children of Donnie and Joy Lance, have submitted a letter to the parole board and plan to ask for mercy at Tuesday's hearing. Donnie Lance has maintained his innocence and his children have doubts about his guilt, but their plea for clemency doesn't depend on those doubts, the application says.
“We've spent our whole lives with this huge gaping hole in our hearts, but at least we've had dad at our sides," they wrote in the letter, which is quoted in the application. “It's almost impossible to imagine that it could get worse.”
The clemency application details the close contact the pair have maintained with their father during his more than two decades on death row, relying on his advice and support. They acknowledge that their mother's family and Wood's family have also suffered enormously as a result of the killings.
“With us being the exception, everyone has lost everything they are going to lose from this nightmare,” they wrote. “We have lost just as much, but somehow, we still have more to lose — and that's being taken away even as we sit here now. We'll continue to pray this final loss doesn't come to pass.”
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, according to a Georgia Supreme Court summary of the case.
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. Lawyers for the state have argued in court filings that the evidence against Lance “although circumstantial, was overwhelming.”
Prosecutors argued that Lance had long abused his ex-wife, both during their marriage and after their divorce, and that he had threatened multiple times to kill her. His lawyers wrote in the clemency application that the two had a troubled relationship and that “alcohol abuse was a significant factor in a history of mutual aggression.”
The trial court refused a request from Lance's lawyer for the appointment of a second lawyer and for funds to hire experts. He spent all his time preparing for the guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial and didn't present any evidence during the penalty phase.
The jury that sentenced Lance to death didn't hear anything about his mental health issues or traumatic brain injuries that affected his mental health functioning, the application says. When the U.S. Supreme Court declined last year to take his case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent, joined by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, arguing that evidence could have swayed at least one juror.
While courts have been limited in the questions they could consider in post-conviction proceedings, the parole board is not bound by those limits and can take all the facts and details into account, the clemency petition argues in urging the board members to commute his sentence.
Lance has also been a model inmate, with only two minor infraction during his two decades on death row — having 54 stamps rather than the allowed 50 and refusing to move to a different cell. The clemency application includes testimonials from guards and mental health counselors who attest to his good behavior and support clemency.
In addition to the clemency application, Lance also has challenges pending before the courts.
He would be the first prisoner executed in Georgia this year. Jimmy Fletcher Meders was scheduled for lethal injection Jan. 16, but the parole board commuted his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole just hours before the execution was scheduled to happen.
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