Supreme Court Lets Death Sentence Stand for Prisoner Whose Attorney Presented No Mitigating Evidence

Over a sharp dissent by three justices, the United States Supreme Court has let stand the death sentence imposed on a Georgia prisoner who was suffering from dementia, brain damage, and borderline intellectual functioning, but whose trial lawyer failed to present any mitigating evidence. On January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court denied the petition for writ of certiorari filed on behalf of death-row prisoner Donnie Cleveland Lance seeking the Court’s review of the Georgia Supreme Court's denial of relief in his case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor – joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan – dissented, writing that “the Court’s refusal to intervene permits an egregious breakdown of basic procedural safeguards to go unremedied.”

Lance was sentenced to death by a Georgia court for the 1997 murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Lance’s trial lawyer – a solo practitioner who was convinced he could persuade the jury of Lance’s innocence – asked the trial court to appoint a second lawyer to handle any potential penalty phase. The court denied that request and also denied a defense motion for funds to retain expert witnesses to challenge the range of experts hired by the prosecution in the case. After the court denied his motions, Lance’s lawyer conducted no penalty-phase investigation and did nothing to prepare for the penalty phase. Following Lance’s conviction, counsel made no penalty-phase opening statement, called no witnesses, and presented no mitigating evidence. In his cursory closing argument, counsel asked the jury to think of Lance’s family and to not seek vengeance. 

New counsel represented Lance in his state post-conviction proceedings and presented extensive evidence of Lance’s serious cognitive impairments. Four mental health experts agreed that Lance had brain damage in his frontal lobe, that his IQ was on the borderline for intellectual disability, and that he suffered from clinical dementia. While the three defense experts agreed that Lance’s brain damage significantly impaired his ability to control his impulses and conform his conduct to the law, the state’s expert disagreed about the extent of his impairment. The trial court overturned Lance’s death sentence, ruling that counsel had provided ineffective representation. However, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed, holding that while counsel’s performance was deficient, the presentation of mitigating evidence would have been futile given the facts of the murder. On federal habeas corpus review, the Georgia federal courts ruled that the Georgia Supreme Court had not unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent when it upheld Lance’s death sentence.

The three-justice dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to intervene argued that the Georgia Supreme Court decision was “an objectively unreasonable application” of U.S. Supreme Court precedent and had “mischaracterized or omitted key facts and improperly weighed the evidence.” The evidence of Lance’s “‘serious’ and ‘significant’” mental impairments, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “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.” Instead, she said, “Lance may well be executed without any adequately informed jury having decided his fate.”

(Amy Howe, The justices return, without Ginsburg or any new grants (Updated), SCOTUSblog, January 7, 2019; Debra Cassens Weiss, Sotomayor joins Gorsuch in dissent from cert denial in restitution case, ABA Journal, January 7, 2019; Kevin Lessmiller, High Court Rules Against Pair of Convicted Killers, Courthouse News, January 7, 2019.) Read Donnie Cleveland Lance’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari and Justice Sotomayor’s dissent in Lance v. Sellers, No. 17-1382 (U.S. Jan. 7, 2019). See U.S. Supreme Court, Mental Illness, and Representation.