On Wednesday evening (US time) - after two decades of legal battles, a hearing that pitted loved ones against one another and a last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court - Donnie Lance was executed for the murders of his ex-wife and her boyfriend.

For many, the 65 year-old Georgia man's death by lethal injection was long-overdue justice for a brutal crime. Prosecutors said that he beat his former spouse so badly with the butt of a shotgun that her face could not be recognised and that he bragged later to an inmate about an eyeball "stuck to the wall."

Lance was sentenced to death for killing ex-wife Sabrina 'Joy' Lance (pictured, with Lance and their two children) and Dwight 'Butch' Wood Jr in Novermber 1997. Photo / via Facebook
Lance was sentenced to death for killing ex-wife Sabrina 'Joy' Lance (pictured, with Lance and their two children) and Dwight 'Butch' Wood Jr in Novermber 1997. Photo / via Facebook

But Joy and Donnie Lance's children, stuck loving both victim and convicted killer, have never stopped believing the father who cried and insisted to them days after the crime in 1997, "I didn't do it, I didn't do it." And even if he did it, they say, they wanted their dad alive.

"He's the only thing we had left of a parent," said 34 year-old Stephanie Cape, who drove two hours each way every three weeks to visit him on death row - where Donnie Lance would sit his 2 year-old granddaughter in his lap and give her sips of his Dr Pepper from a bottle cap.

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Neither Stephanie nor her brother Jessie Lance, 30, were there to watch their father's execution unfold less than an hour after the Supreme Court said it would not step in.

They didn't know when, exactly, the flow of pentobarbital would begin, and they didn't witness the details recorded by local reporters: the paling of the skin, the wiggling of the toes.

But somehow, Jessie said, he texted a close friend just a minute after his father was pronounced dead at 9.05pm. "It's done," he said. At his sister's house in Georgia, family hugged in a bedroom and then settled for a moment into a peaceful quiet.

Other relatives were leaving the death chamber with relief at justice served. A sister of Joy Lance's boyfriend - Dwight "Butch" Wood Jr., Fatally shot - told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday that while she felt for Donnie Lance's kids, she had also watched her brother's children grow up without a dad.

"We as taxpayers have supported this man for too long," Tammy Dearing told the newspaper.

Authorities found Wood, 33, and Joy Lance, 39, dead in Wood's home on November 9, 1997, according to the Georgia Supreme Court's evidence summary. Wood had been shot at least twice, Lance repeatedly hit. The shotgun was in pieces.

Joy's father would testify that Donnie Lance had called him the evening before, looking for her. A law enforcement officer said he saw Wood's car leave the driveway minutes later. And prosecutors laid out links between Lance and the crime scene.

Lance said he didn't own the size 7-and-a-half Sears "Diehard" shoes that authorities believed were worn while kicking in Wood's door, according to the court's summary. But an empty shoe box for a matching pair turned up in Lance's shop, along with matching footprints. A grease pit in the shop also yielded a shotgun shell like the ammunition fired into Wood.

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Then there was Lance's history. Prosecutors described a man who terrorised his ex-wife with beatings, strangulation, electric shocks, threats of death by handgun and chain-saw, and more. Witnesses testified they'd heard Lance threaten to kill his wife if she divorced him or started a romantic relationship with Wood.

The trial showcased a "monster," Wood's brother-in-law, Terry Dearing, told the Journal-Constitution.

Donnie Lance was executed by lethal injection after being convicted of killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Photo / AP
Donnie Lance was executed by lethal injection after being convicted of killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Photo / AP

One man testified that, years earlier, he'd joined Lance in kicking in Wood's door amid suspicions the man was involved with Joy, according to the court summary. Lance barged in with a sawed-off shotgun and loaded the chamber, running off only when a child spoke, he said.

"The evidence against Lance, although circumstantial, was overwhelming," attorneys would write.

But the legal tussle was just beginning when Lance was sentenced to death on June 23, 1999.

First, Lance claimed a witness had been offered a deal for his testimony, but a trial court weighed in against him. An appeal to Georgia's Supreme Court only affirmed his convictions and punishments.

Then lawyers pointed to problems with Lance's counsel at trial - concerns that made it up to the U.S. Supreme Court. That court decided not to hear Lance's appeal, but three justices dissented, saying the convict didn't get a fair shake at arguing against the death penalty.

Lance's lawyer was so sure his client would be exonerated that he never prepared arguments for the sentencing phase, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent early last year. Yet the convict's "significant cognitive impairments" - he'd been shot in the head, among other traumas - could have swayed the jury. While prosecutors lambasted a "cold and calculating" killer, the defense lawyer merely offered a description of Lance as a "quiet person and a country boy," the justice wrote.

Lance's daughter drove two hours each way every three weeks to visit him on death row. Photo / 123RF
Lance's daughter drove two hours each way every three weeks to visit him on death row. Photo / 123RF

"The facts of Lance's crimes . . . admittedly inspire little sympathy," Sotomayor wrote. But jurors "heard no evidence why his life was worth sparing."

More objections were raised in Lance's latest, 11th-hour requests for intervention from the highest court in the land. Lawyers said the grand jury that indicted Lance was not selected randomly but rather pulled from a prosecutor's friends. They also contended that Georgia courts denied their client due process when they denied a recent request for DNA testing on evidence.

Lance's children say fragments of the splintered shotgun and a fingerprint on an ammunition shell could point toward someone other than their father, who had no links to the crime scene on his body when police took him in.

But the Georgia Supreme Court dismissed the DNA request as a delay tactic, saying Lance could have pursued similar testing years ago. And on Wednesday evening, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected both of Lance's final arguments.

Jessie Lance and Stephanie Cape picked up the phone together when one of their father's lawyers called with the news.

They'd been together back in 1997, too, when their mother didn't come to pick them up and their aunt drove them over to check on her. The siblings still remember how their aunt emerged from the crime scene, expressionless, then got back in the car, no mom in sight.

Eight year-old Jessie started crying in the back seat, and soon 12 year-old Stephanie joined him, they said. They knew something was wrong.

Jessie and Stephanie say they never witnessed the litany of abuse detailed in trial - all the red flags that led their mom's side of the family to call Donnie Lance the obvious culprit. Decades later, they were still hoping they could change minds as the execution date approached.

Texting with a relative set to weigh in the day before at a State Board of Pardons and Paroles hearing, Jessie says, he asked to talk one-on-one over dinner. He'd be asking the board for clemency. He urged the family member to think of him and his sister Tuesday afternoon.

But the relative was reluctant to meet. She said she was pretty sure how the conversation would go. In the end, she didn't just argue for death, he said - she went to watch.

Jessie says she reminded him of the jury's finding. "Donnie beat most of her face off."

"Your daddy," she said, "is the one who put us all here."