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Georgia death row case awaits review by U.S. Supreme Court

By David Pendered

A petition regarding a heinous double murder in Jackson County in 1997 is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, and a respected blog that covers the court has highlighted this death penalty case as one to watch.

The convicted killer, now fighting to get off Georgia’s death row, was charged with beating the face of his former wife until she died, and shooting her boyfriend at least twice with a shotgun after the killer had kicked down a door to gain entry to the boyfriend’s home, according to a 2002 ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court.

The pending petition contends the attorney for Donnie Cleveland Lance failed to mount a defense that included Lance’s, “significant mental impairments” – including being “borderline retarded,” demented from alcohol abuse, and a survivor of head wounds inflicted by a gun shot, fights, and car wrecks.

Had this history been offered, a jury may not have imposed the death penalty, according to the petition. The trial court imposed a total of two death sentences for two murders, two consecutive 20-year terms for burglary and five years for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

Justices have not yet considered the petition that asks the court to evaluate a ruling against Lance that was issued Oct. 31, 2017 by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Unless justices agree to take the case, there will not be a case to watch.

Nevertheless, a co-founder of scotusblog.com observed that the petition filed on behalf of Lance raises issues that may warrant the court’s review.

Scotusblog.com reporter Aurora Barnes listed the Lance case as the “Petition of the Day” on May 10. The case was selected by Tom Goldstein, who in 2002 co-founded the site with his wife, fellow attorney Amy Howe.

The website defines this designation as follows:

  • “’Petitions of the day’ are those that Tom [Goldstein] has identified as raising one or more questions that have a reasonable chance of being granted in an appropriate case. We generally do not attempt to evaluate whether the case presents an appropriate vehicle to decide the question, which is a critical consideration in determining whether certiorari will be granted.”

Scotus.blog won a Peabody Award in 2012. Judges observed:

  • “For filling a gap in Supreme Court coverage created by traditional media outlets’ staff cutbacks and, in fact, far exceeding it, SCOTUS.blog receives a Peabody Award.”

Goldstein’s profile on his law firm’s site portrays him as, “one of the nation’s most experienced Supreme Court practitioners,” who also teaches Supreme Court Litigation at Harvard Law School and, previously, at Stanford Law School.

Howe recently stepped down as editor and reporter of scotusblog.com, according to her profile. Howe was involved with more than 24 cases before the Supreme Court, arguing two of them. Previously, she co-taught Supreme Court Litigation at Stanford and Harvard law schools.

Lance’s appeal to the Supreme Court was filed by two lawyers with King & Spalding’s Atlanta office – Joseph Loveland, as the counsel of record, and James Boswell.

Eric Sellers, warden of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, is the respondent. The prison houses the state’s execution chamber. Sellers is represented by state Attorney General Chris Carr, state Solicitor General Sarah Hawkins Warren, and three ranking state lawyers.

The jury in Lance’s trial, in Jackson County, located northeast of Gwinnett County, had no trouble convicting Lance of the double murder of Sabrina “Joy” Lance and Dwight “Butch” Wood, Jr.

The jury imposed the death sentence for reasons including that the murders were “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, and an aggravated battery to the victim,” according to the 2002 Georgia Supreme Court ruling.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. boomliftrenthyderabad May 14, 2018 7:14 am

    A job well done! This is a beautiful piece. Trust me, the sky is your limit..Report

  2. Beverly Blalock December 10, 2018 1:07 pm

    Did the U.S. Supreme Court make their final ruling yet?Report

  3. David December 10, 2018 5:34 pm

    Hello, Beverly,
    Thank you for your message.
    The Supreme Court has not ruled on the case. But justices have accepted the case, which they had not done as of the initial story.
    I’ll report further and post a new story as information becomes available.


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