Condemned man’s children call for DNA tests

Donnie Lance was convicted for the murders of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. His children aren’t sure.
Death-row inmate Donnie Lance with his two children, Stephanie and Jessie, in a family photo taken more than 20 years ago and before Lance was convicted of a double murder. Family photo

Death-row inmate Donnie Lance with his two children, Stephanie and Jessie, in a family photo taken more than 20 years ago and before Lance was convicted of a double murder. Family photo

For two decades, Donnie Lance has been a devoted father, dispensing advice to and being a sounding board for his 30-year-old son and 34-year-old daughter. And he’s done so from inside the most unexpected place: Georgia’s death row.

He recommended that his son, Jessie Lance, enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, an experience Jessie calls “the best thing I could have ever done for myself.” He has reveled in the birth of his granddaughter, now almost 2. She lights up with a grin when her mom, Stephanie Cape, says the words “Papa Don.”

What makes this relationship remarkable — and heart-wrenching — is that Lance, 65, was sentenced to death for taking the life of his children’s mother. A Jackson County jury found him guilty of savagely beating his ex-wife, Joy Lance, 39, to death with the shotgun he’d just used to fire two fatal shots into the back of her boyfriend, Dwight “Butch” Wood, 33.

But both Cape, who was 12 when her mother died, and her brother, who was 8, say they find it hard to believe their father committed the double murder. They are now calling on Georgia’s court system to allow DNA tests of the evidence used to help convict Donnie Lance.

So far, state attorneys have steadfastly opposed DNA testing, and a judge has denied Lance’s petition. His appeal of that ruling is now pending before the Georgia Supreme Court, and if the court declines to hear it Lance’s execution date could be set fairly soon.

“When we found out we could test for DNA, we were excited,” Jessie Lance said in a recent interview. “We weren’t prepared for a judge denying it. Why not do everything you can to make sure you know who killed this woman and her boyfriend — who happened to be my mom and her boyfriend?”

In an unusual twist, Lance and his sister speak on behalf of their father and also as members of the victim’s family. They acknowledge that some of their close relatives on their mother’s side of the family want the execution to be carried out.

“But I don’t see why anyone in the victim’s family wouldn’t want this test,” Lance said. “My dad wants it done. Doesn’t that tell you something? This doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Added Cape: “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?”

Donnie Lance. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

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

On Wednesday, when asked about the request for DNA testing, Smith said, “None of the items asked to be tested would change the facts of the case.”

Lance, represented by numerous attorneys, has appealed his conviction for 20 years and never asked for the testing until now, Smith said. “It is only brought up at the last minute as a delay tactic.”

The bodies of Lance and Wood were found in Wood’s Jackson County home. Wood died of shotgun blasts and Lance had been beaten to death by repeated blows to her face, according to court records.

A shoe print and a shotgun shell

According to testimony at trial, Joy Lance’s father said Donnie Lance had called looking for his ex-wife around 11:55 p.m. the night before the bodies were found. A law enforcement officer testified he saw Lance pull out of his driveway around midnight. Investigators found a partial footprint on the door of Wood’s home, where it appeared someone had tried to kick in the door. The print was consistent with a certain shoe in an unusual size: Sears DieHard work boots, size 7½ EE.

When asked early on by authorities if he had owned any DieHard boots, Lance replied, “Not that I know of.” But a search of his shop uncovered an empty shoe box that had contained those same shoes. A Sears employee also testified Lance had bought shoes of the same type and size and exchanged them under a warranty for a new pair. (Lance’s lawyers, however, contend that by the time of the double murder Lance had swapped out that pair for a size 8 D and a box for those boots was found in his home.)

Also, in a grease pit in Lance’s shop, officers found a live shotgun shell that matched the ammunition used in Woods’ killing.

Wood’s brother-in-law, Joe Moore, testified that Lance told him on the day the bodies were found that his ex-wife and Wood were both dead. And two inmates from the jail testified that Lance talked with them about the murders — although Lance’s new lawyers say one of those informants later recanted his testimony in a subsequent hearing.

Lance and his ex-wife also had a violent history. At trial, the state presented evidence that Lance had repeatedly beaten Joy Lance with his fists, a belt and a handgun. He also tried to strangle and electrocute her, and witnesses said they heard Lance threaten to kill her if she divorced him and became romantically involved with Wood.

In an interview at her home in Commerce, Cape said that while she heard her parents fought, “he never did that in front of us.”

Joy Lance with her children Stephanie and Jessie.

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In June 1999, a jury sentenced Lance to death for the two murders. And jurors did so after his trial lawyer presented no mitigation evidence on Lance’s behalf during the sentencing phase — something that is unheard of in capital trials today and was extraordinary even 20 years ago.

A trial judge later threw out Lance’s death sentence on grounds his lawyer failed to prepare for sentencing, but the state Supreme Court reinstated the sentence in 2010.

In January, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Lance’s latest appeal, Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented. She said Lance’s lawyer at trial should have presented mitigation evidence of his client’s cognitive impairments. This included head traumas from multiple car accidents and once being shot in the head.

Because his lawyer failed him, the jury heard no evidence why Lance’s life was worth sparing, wrote Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. The high court’s refusal to step in now, she wrote, “permits an egregious breakdown of basic procedural safeguards to go unremedied.”

Defendant was not stained with blood

In court filings, Lance’s new lawyers note there were no witnesses to the crime and the murder weapon was never found. Despite the horrific nature of Joy Lance’s beating, no blood or other physical evidence was found on Lance after he was taken in for questioning just hours after the killings.

In court filings, Lance’s lawyers asked for several DNA tests, including those of wood fragments from what is believed to be from the butt of the shotgun and a fingerprint from a spent shotgun shell found at the scene.

But Jackson County Superior Court Judge Nicholas Primm denied the request, saying “there is no likelihood that the jury would have reached a different verdict if the hypothetical DNA results had been available at the time of trial.”

Jessie Lance, who lives in Encino, Calif., and works for an investment banking firm, said his family is prepared to pay for the DNA tests. And if the tests are allowed and confirm his father committed the killing, “at least we’ll have some sort of closure after 22 years.”

But if the tests came back with someone else’s DNA, he said, “they should probably reassess what happened.”

In the interview, on the 22nd anniversary of her mom’s death, Cape recalled what her father said to her not long after the killings.

“I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it,” Lance told her, she said. “Then he just cried and began hugging me.”

Cape said she’s never brought it up with her father since. But, after talking to him over the past two decades, “I just don’t think he did it,” she said.

If such testing is ultimately allowed and a match ties the killing to her father, Cape said, she’ll need to have some soul-searching conversations with him.

“I’d want to know why,” she said. “And would I think he needs to get out of prison if he did it? No.”

But she doesn’t want him to be executed either. For years, she’s driven the two-hour, one-way trip to death row and back to visit with her father. “If he’s kept alive, I’ll still be down there every weekend,” she said.