A day after the state parole board spared the life of one condemned inmate, the state of Georgia announced the scheduled execution of another.
Donnie Lance, 65, sentenced to death in 1999 for the murders of his his ex-wife and her boyfriend in Jackson County, is to be given a lethal injection of pentobarbital on Jan. 29. Jimmy Meders faced the same fate before his sentence was commuted to life without parole hours before his planned execution Thursday. The board said it changed Meders’ sentence to life without parole largely because the jury had expressed their desire for that sentence, but it wasn’t legally allowed at the time of the trial.
That sentence was a legal option when jurors sentenced Lance to die.
His adult children recently called for new DNA testing on evidence in the case because they are close with their father and find it hard to believe he killed their mother. Joy Lance, 39, was beaten to death with the shotgun used to shoot her boyfriend Dwight “Butch” Wood, 33, prosecutors said.
“Me and my brother deserve to know who did it — whether it’s him or someone else,” Stephanie Cape said in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’ve lived our whole life not knowing for sure. If there’s a chance for actual proof, why not do it?”
Other relatives want the execution carried out, Cape and her brother, Jessie Lance, said.
Jackson County District Attorney Brad Smith and state attorneys have said the evidence against Lance, “although circumstantial, was overwhelming.” Prosecutors maintain Donnie Lance was abusive to his ex-wife for years before the murders. Witnesses said they’d heard Donnie Lance threaten to kill her if she divorced him and became involved with Wood.
In recent court filings, Lance’s lawyers noted that, despite the horrific nature of Joy Lance’s beating, no blood or other physical evidence was found on 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 and a fingerprint from a shotgun shell found at the scene. The bodies were found at Wood’s home.
Smith has called the requests for DNA testing a delay tactic. Donnie Lance has only requested the testing in recent months.
In a December filing, Donnie Lance’s attorneys argued the grand jury that indicted him was improperly picked by a prosecutor who allegedly packed it with friends and others he knew would be on his side.
“The same clique of people sat (on the grand jury) for years and years,” said Katrina Conrad, an investigator from the Federal Defender Program. “(Prosecutor Tim Madison) picked jurors from one church in Jefferson and the preacher there would preach about the grand jury indicting people.”
In response, the state attorney general’s office said Lance’s attorneys had already unsuccessfully argued years ago that the grand jury was improperly picked.
Lance’s death sentence has long been an issue in court because his trial attorneys put up no mitigating evidence on his behalf during the penalty phase of the trial.
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Lance’s latest appeal. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying Lance’s lawyer at trial should have presented mitigation evidence of his client’s cognitive impairments, which were due to head trauma from accidents and once being shot in the head.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan joined in the dissent. Sotomayor wrote said the high court’s refusal to step in “permits an egregious breakdown of basic procedural safeguards to go unremedied.”
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