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Lance v. Sellers

United States Supreme Court

January 7, 2019



         The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.

          Justice Sotomayor, with whom Justice Ginsburg and JUSTICE Kagan join, dissenting from denial of certiorari.

         Before deciding that petitioner Donnie Cleveland Lance should die as punishment for two murders he committed, a jury heard no evidence whatsoever to counterbalance the State's case for the death penalty. Lance's counsel bore responsibility for the one-sidedness of the sentencing proceedings; he inexcusably failed even to look into, much less to put on, a case for sparing Lance's life. And we have since learned that Lance suffers from significant cognitive impairments that the jury could have weighed in assessing his moral culpability. In other words, there is a meaningful case to be made for sparing Lance's life, but- because he lacked access to constitutionally adequate counsel-he has never had a chance to present it.

         The Georgia Supreme Court concluded that this state of affairs was constitutionally tolerable because, in its view, Lance's untold story stood no chance of persuading even a single juror to favor life without parole over a death sentence. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that its conclusion was not unreasonable. I cannot agree. Our precedents clearly establish that Lance was prejudiced by his inability to inform the jury about his impairments. I therefore would grant Lance's petition for review and summarily reverse.



         The facts of Lance's crimes-murdering his ex-wife, Sabrina "Joy" Lance, and her boyfriend, Dwight "Butch" Wood, Jr., in 1997-admittedly inspire little sympathy. Lance went to Butch's home, kicked in the front door, shot Butch with a shotgun, then bludgeoned Joy to death with the gun. According to a fellow inmate, he later bragged about the killings. Lance also had an extensive prior history of domestic violence against Joy.[1]

         Due to his counsel's ineffectiveness, however, those facts were all the jurors ever learned about Lance; they heard no evidence why his life was worth sparing. Lance was represented during both the guilt and penalty phases of his trial by a solo practitioner who became convinced of Lance's innocence-and his own ability to prove it-early in the representation. He thus prepared exclusively for the guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial. Counsel did not even broach the subject of possible penalty-phase evidence with Lance or his family, because he did not want them "thinking that [he] might be thinking in terms of losing the case." App. to Pet. for Cert. 232. So when the jury found Lance guilty and the question became whether Lance should be put to death, [2] Lance's counsel had no evidence whatsoever to present.

         The State did. It called six witnesses, including the victims' relatives, to explain why Lance deserved to die. The State's closing argument emphasized Lance's history of violence against Joy, the brutality of her killing, and Lance's apparent lack of remorse. The State urged the jury to perceive Lance as "'cold and calculating'" and repeatedly asked "'what kind of person'" would do these things. 1 App. in No. 16-15008 (CA11), pt. 1, pp. 68, 75, 77. Lance's counsel, by contrast, made no opening statement and presented no mitigating evidence. By his own admission, he "had nothing to put on." App. to Pet. for Cert. 273. His closing argument merely urged the jury to consider Lance's family and to resist the temptation to exact vengeance. About Lance, counsel said only that he was "'kind of a quiet person and a country boy'" who "'doesn't talk a lot.'" 1 App. in No. 16-15008, pt. 1, at 85.

         The jury sentenced Lance to death.


         In 2003, Lance filed a petition for postconviction relief in state court, asserting that his trial counsel's failure to investigate or present any mitigating evidence was ineffective assistance of counsel. Essentially, he argued that there was a meaningful case to be made for sparing his life, and that his counsel had forfeited his chance to do so through inattention.

         The evidence showed that counsel could have found possible cognitive problems had he looked into Lance's personal history. That history included repeated serious head traumas caused by multiple car crashes, alcoholism, and-most seriously-Lance's once being shot in the head by unknown assailants while lying on his couch.[3] In the aftermath of the shooting, Lance had "terrible headaches," "dizziness," "difficulty working," and "became even more quiet than he had before." App. to Pet. for Cert. 171-172. The court found that any reasonable defense attorney would have had Lance's mental ...

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