Ga. death row inmate’s children: Don’t execute him for our mom’s murder

Attorneys for Donnie Lance, who is scheduled to be executed Wednesday, are asking the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to spare the 65-year-old's life.

The board will meet Tuesday morning to consider the clemency petition for Lance, who was convicted in 1999 in Jackson County of beating to death his ex-wife, Joy Lance, and fatally shooting her boyfriend, Dwight "Butch" Wood Jr. Lance has maintained his innocence, and his adult children, whose mother was Joy Lance, have in recent months unsuccessfully called for new DNA testing to confirm whether he committed the crime.

In a letter attached to the clemency petition, the children said the pain of losing their mother would be compounded if the state kills their father.

“We have spent our whole lives with this huge gaping hole in our hearts,” Stephanie Cape and her brother Jessie Lance wrote, “but at least we’ve had dad at our sides. It’s almost impossible to imagine that it could get worse.”

Lance’s clemency request comes just weeks after the parole board commuted the death sentence of Jimmy Meders to life without parole. That rare commutation, the board’s first since 2014, hinged largely on the fact that the jury in Meders’ case had expressed their desire to sentence him to life without parole, but it wasn’t legally allowed at the time of the trial. Such a sentence was a legal option when jurors sentenced Lance to die.

Lance’s petition leans on the fact that the jury knew nothing about Donnie Lance’s brain damage from repeated head traumas before sentencing him to death. One of the injuries, Donnie Lance’s lawyers said, occurred when Lance was shot in the head during a previous confrontation with the murder victims. Prosecutors have said Donnie Lance was abusive to Joy Lance, 39, and didn’t want her to date Butch Wood, 33. Witnesses said they heard Donnie Lance threaten to kill Joy Lance if she took up with Wood.

In January 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Lance’s latest appeal, which included information about his trial attorney’s failure to put up 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 the high court’s refusal to step in “permits an egregious breakdown of basic procedural safeguards to go unremedied.”

MORE: Georgia parole board grants clemency for only the 12th time since 1976

In addition to seeking clemency, Lance’s lawyers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to accept Lance’s appeal of Butts County Superior Court Judge Thomas Wilson’s decision denying DNA testing of evidence found at the murder scene. Lance’s lawyers have noted that, despite the horrific nature of Joy Lance’s beating, no blood or other physical evidence was found on Donnie Lance after police brought him in for questioning just hours after the killings. The lawyers asked for DNA testing on wood fragments from what is believed to be the butt of the shotgun used in the murders and a fingerprint from a shotgun shell found at the scene. The bodies were found at Wood’s home.

Late Monday, Lance's lawyers also asked the Georgia Supreme Court to stay the scheduled execution so it can hear separate claims of alleged prosecutorial misconduct in the composition of the Jackson County grand jury system.
The grand jury that handed up Lance's indictment was not randomly selected as required by law, the court filing said. Instead, the district attorney at the time stacked it with his friends and business owners he knew would be on his side, the motion said.

In a recent ruling, Wilson rejected these claims, saying they were previously litigated in a petition filed in 2005 and are now being raised too late in the appellate process. But Lance’s motion to the state high court contends the Butts County judge got it wrong because defense team investigators only discovered new details of the alleged misconduct in the past few years.

“Mr. Lance was deprived of a fair and impartial grand jury,” his motion said. “ ... 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.”

Jackson County District Attorney Brad Smith and state attorneys have said the evidence against Lance, “although circumstantial, was overwhelming.”

Wood’s father, Dwight Wood Sr., 83, is willing to live with whatever sentence is Lance’s fate, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday night. If the state executes Lance, the father won’t protest. If the death sentence is overturned, the father won’t protest.

He plans to attend the execution if it goes forward. “I’ve agreed to do that, reluctantly,” he said.

In the clemency petition, the defense attorneys note questions about Lance’s guilt and say Lance told the parole board last week that he was innocent. But time and again, the petition simply asks for mercy.

Donnie Lance, the attorneys said, deserves mercy because his brain damage makes it clear he isn’t the “worst of the worst” for whom the death penalty should be reserved.

Lance has also been a model inmate, his defense team argued. Only twice in more than 20 years on death row has he been written up: once for having too many stamps, once for refusing to change cells. Prison mental health workers interviewed by the defense said Lance has always been friendly and never caused problems.

Donnie and Joy Lance’s two children said their father has been a constant in their lives, offering advice and love, helping them live with the absence of their mother. In the brother and sister’s letter to the parole board, they said they understood they weren’t the only ones who lost someone in the crime: their mother’s family lost her, and Butch Wood’s family lost him. Some relatives, Lance’s children know, want the execution carried out.

“But one thing that sets us apart is what we have left to lose,” Donnie Lance’s children wrote. “With us being the exception, everyone has lost everything they are going to lose from this nightmare. … We continue to pray that this final loss doesn’t come to pass.”