Georgia Executes Donnie Lance Over Protests of Victim’s Children After Denying DNA Testing

Georgia executed Donnie Lance on January 29, 2020 after his requests for DNA testing and a plea for clemency supported by the children he and murder victim Joy Lance shared were denied.

Lance was convicted in 1999 of murdering his ex-wife, Joy Lance, and her boyfriend, Dwight Wood. He has maintained his innocence in the killings and sought DNA testing of evidence from the crime scene. His two adult children, Jessie Lance and Stephanie Cape, not only supported that request, but also asked the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency. In a letter to the Board, they wrote, “We have spent our whole lives with this huge gaping hole in our hearts, but at least we’ve had dad at our sides. It’s almost impossible to imagine that it could get worse.”

In addition to the family’s plea, Lance’s clemency petition and appeals also highlighted flaws in the legal process that led to his conviction. According to a motion his attorneys filed in the Georgia Supreme Court, prosecutors illegally selected friends and allies for the grand jury that indicted Lance, rather than randomly selecting members as required by law. The motion argued that “Mr. Lance was deprived of a fair and impartial grand jury. … There was no reason for Mr. Lance to suspect that this conduct had occurred or to seek the specific evidence necessary to show the impact of this ‘packing’ on the grand jury’s composition.”

At his trial, Lance’s attorneys failed to present any mitigating evidence. His appeal lawyers argued that evidence that Lance had sustained brain damage from repeated head traumas might have swayed the jury to spare his life. In 2019, three U.S. Supreme Court justices agreed. Dissenting from the Court’s refusal to hear his appeal, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote that the Court’s inaction “permits an egregious breakdown of basic procedural safeguards to go unremedied.”

Lance’s case was the third in Georgia in the last three months in which courts denied a prisoner’s request for DNA testing. Ray Cromartie was executed on November 13, 2019, after unsuccessfully seeking DNA testing that could have proven his claim he was not the shooter. Jimmy Meders also unsuccessfully sought DNA testing to prove that a key prosecution witness against him was the shooter and that he did not commit the murder. The courts rejected his request, but he was granted clemency on January 16 by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles just hours before his scheduled execution based on affidavits from all the surviving jurors that they would have sentenced him to life without parole if it had been an option.

In her plea for DNA testing in Donnie Lance’s case, Stephanie Cape said, “Me and my brother deserve to know who did it — whether it’s him or someone else. We’ve lived our whole life not knowing for sure. If there’s a chance for actual proof, why not do it?”

Sources

Kate Brumback, Lawyers ask Georgia parole board to spare con­demned man’s life, Associated Press, January 27, 2020; Joshua Sharpe, Clemency denied for Ga. man fac­ing exe­cu­tion for dou­ble mur­der, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 28, 2020; Bill Rankin, Condemned man’s chil­dren call for DNA tests, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 13, 2019; Joshua Sharpe and Bill Rankin, Ga. death row inmate’s chil­dren: Don’t exe­cute him for our mom’s mur­der, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 27, 2020; Joshua Sharpe and Bill Rankin, Georgia exe­cutes Donnie Lance for 1997 dou­ble mur­der, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 302020.