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Georgia Supreme Court to review death sentence case
Donnie Cleveland Lance

Donnie Cleveland Lance suffered from lingering brain injuries caused by an old gunshot wound and drunken car wrecks when he went on a rampage in Jackson County in 1997, fatally shooting his ex-wife’s boyfriend with a shotgun before beating her to death with the gun, according to his lawyers.

In April, a judge in Butts County, home to Georgia’s death row, threw out Lance’s death sentence on appeal, finding that his lawyer didn’t sufficiently present evidence of mental impairment during the sentencing phase of his 1999 trial.

Today, the Georgia Supreme Court will hear arguments for either restoring the death sentence or allowing Lance, 56, to serve out a life sentence without parole. The state’s high court will also be asked to grant him a new trial.

Lance’s ex-wife, Sabrina "Joy" Lance, and her boyfriend, Dwight "Butch" Wood were murdered Nov. 9, 1997, in Wood’s Jackson County trailer home. According to evidence presented at Donnie Lance’s trial, Wood was shot twice with a shotgun and Joy Lance was killed by repeated blows to the head. A shoe print on the trailer door matched a work boot believed to be worn by Donnie Lance and officials found an unspent shotgun shell in his shop that matched the ammunition that killed Wood.

A Jackson County jury convicted Lance of murder and sentenced him to death, and the Georgia Supreme Court upheld his conviction and sentence in 2002.

The death sentence was overturned by a judge in Butts County earlier this year after a civil proceeding known as a habeas corpus hearing, a routine part of the appeals process for death row inmates.

The judge found that Lance’s attorney provided "ineffective assistance of counsel" for failing to make evidence of mental impairment more of an issue in the sentencing phase of the trial.

The Georgia Attorney General’s Office argues in court filings that the evidence of Lance’s brain damage, if any, was "clearly unsympathetic," and portrayed him as a "violent, reckless alcoholic."

The fact that Lance "acted impulsively because he was an alcoholic, who got into physical confrontations and car wrecks is not strong, sympathetic mitigating evidence," that could convince a jury to spare Lance’s life, the state argued in court filings.

Lance’s appeals attorneys argued in court filings that the state trivialized the habeas ruling in "a misguided effort to hold onto a death sentence."

Lawyers for Lance feel the court didn’t go far enough, however, and are expected to argue that he deserves a new trial. If Lance’s trial lawyer was found to be ineffective in the penalty phase of the trial, it should also apply to the guilt-innocence phase, they argued in court filings.

"The same logic mandates that the guilty verdict also be reversed and the case remanded for a new trial," Lance’s appellate attorneys argue.

Justices are scheduled to hear arguments in the case at 10 a.m. today in Atlanta.