Death Penalty

Donnie Lance Will Be Executed Tonight Without Physical Evidence Attaching Him to Murder

Supporters of Lance believe the court should have tested DNA before sentencing him to death.

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Supporters of Donnie Cleveland Lance say that no physical evidence has ever tied him to the 1997 murders of ex-wife Joy Lance and her boyfriend, Dwight "Butch" Wood. Regardless, Lance will be executed by the state of Georgia on Wednesday after a parole board denied him clemency.

A jury found Lance guilty of shooting his ex-wife's boyfriend in the back and using the shotgun to brutally beat her to death. Lance's case, detailed more here, has no witnesses and a murder weapon was never found. DNA testing, for which his lawyers and supporters have repeatedly called, was never carried out. Lance has maintained his innocence in the crimes.

Prosecutors made their case based on his threats to kill his ex-wife and a long history of brutal abuse that included beating her with various objects, choking her, and shocking her with a car battery.

Supporters believe Lance's case was poorly argued as his lawyer failed to investigate and present evidence of his mental impairments. Lance suffered from physical damage to his frontal lobe, potential intellectual disability, and dementia. While there is disagreement over the effects of these mental problems on his impulse control, a judge tossed his death sentence in April 2009 believing that this evidence may have yielded a different outcome in his case. The Georgia Supreme Court reinstated the sentence in 2010, arguing that any evidence would not have exonerated Lance considering, in part, his history of domestic violence.

An appeal of Lance's death sentence was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the dissenting opinion, lambasting the failure of Lance's lawyer to present evidence on his behalf to argue against a death sentence.

"Absent this Court's intervention, Lance may well be executed without any adequately informed jury having decided his fate," she wrote.

In addition to Lance's poor counsel, Lance's lawyers and supporters believe that a sentence as final as the death penalty should have been issued based on something stronger than circumstantial evidence. They've called repeatedly for DNA testing.

"Donnie Lance has maintained his innocence, his children have doubts about his guilt, and the courts have refused to test DNA that could prove his innocence. This case has the earmarks of so many others that have led to exonerations," Hannah Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, tells Reason.

"167 people have been exonerated and freed from death rows across the country, but its a systemic issue that goes far beyond death sentences," Abraham Bonowitz, who co-directs Death Penalty Action, adds. "We are literally seeing innocent people freed from prison almost every day now. Why wouldn't we want absolute certainty?"

Lance will die via lethal injection tonight at 7 p.m. Because of the commutation of Jimmy Meders earlier this month, Lance will be the first Georgia death row prisoner to die this year.

UPDATE: Donnie Cleveland Lance was executed at 9:05 p.m. He did not have a final statement, per a press release.

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  1. Not a very sympathetic case, but regardless, governments should not murder people at all, let alone with such a flimsy case. It’s almost like statists don’t like people.

    1. Yeah, what value does our society or community gain from killing this guy? What value does his death add over keeping him in prison for the rest of his life? Vengeance is not justice.

      1. Yeah, what value does our society or community gain from killing this guy? What value does his death add over keeping him in prison for the rest of his life?

        I am against the death penalty for the same reasons but I can tell you what its proponents would say: It costs less to kill him and bury him than the cost of incarcerating him and his death provides a deterrent to those who would do evil. The moral considerations are discarded.

        1. He won’t kill or injure anyone in the future. Not in prison, not if he escapes and not if some reform-minded officials pardon or parole him.

          1. He won’t kill in prison? Really?

            1. Not now. Not in the future. He gone to Hell.

      2. “Vengeance is not justice.”

        Why do you think that?

      3. Vengeance is not justice.

        Is jailing someone, especially someone with a mental disability, for the rest of their life really that much more of a moral stance than killing them? Does society meaningfully benefit from such dubious morality? Why should society be on the hook for all the crimes committed, innocent men in prison or not? Empathy can be just as cruel and immoral as vengeance.

        1. It’s also completely separate from the lack of physical evidence. Indeed it only has relevance if he actually did it.

        2. Is jailing someone…for the rest of their life really that much more of a moral stance than killing them?

          In my opinion the state has no moral authority to kill an incarcerated individual. A moral argument can at least be made that an association of people can deprive someone of their liberty through incarceration when that individual has been convicted of a violation of the natural rights of one or more members of the association.

          1. ‘deprive someone of their liberty’∋’kill them’

            You’re splitting moral hairs. You cede the state can deprive them of their right(s) without stipulating which one(s). Presumably, this means all. Moreover, even if you cede that the state has an ability, interest, or moral case for seizing someone’s body, unless you want to inject some full-boar religion into your state, the ‘how’ is a bit of a footnote. I’m not trying to be a sophist, but I’m not the one advancing the “The State or state is never justified in killing someone.”

            1. What I “ceded” was a moral argument could be made for incarceration (depriving an individual of his or her liberty). I have never heard one for execution. And I consider the difference between death and lifelong incarceration to be more than a footnote. Most people executed are not remotely worthy of sympathy. My distrust is of the state.

              1. What I “ceded” was a moral argument could be made for incarceration (depriving an individual of his or her liberty). I have never heard one for execution.

                My point is, you’ve heard several. You just whimsically recategorize them as different so you can say that an arbitrary association of people jailing someone is OK but killing is not.

                I’d argue that no individual has a moral right to restrain another person against their will but has an absolute right to defend themselves as they see fit, including murder. That moral justification doesn’t fundamentally change as you move from one to several or more individuals. Moreover, the fundamental moral argument still stands even if the pragmatics and scaling break down.

                My distrust is of the state.

                So, between your average Senator and a man known to have tortured his wife with a car battery, you trust the Senator less? I fully understand and agree with the hatred of democide, but democide doesn’t happen unless murderers exist and either aren’t held responsible or eliminated. Moreover, democide is transient while slavery can be significantly more permanent.

      4. Actually, vengeance is justice. Or one-fifth of it, anyway. The other four are deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation and restoration.

        Personally, I do not believe that death-penalty vengeance is justified given the possibility of error. But that’s a cost-benefit analysis. You are wrong (and persuasively counter-productive) to simply claim that there is no value at all to vengeance.

    2. The man had repeatedly abused and attempted to kill her before. At least once actively breaking the door down, shotgun in hand (of the same caliber) and only left due to the presence of witnesses. After the murder, his shotgun was never found. He was seen leaving his house that night. He owned a pair of boots of the type used to kick down the door (size 7-1/2 Sears DieHard).

      For a crime with no witnesses and no murder weapon, you don’t get much stronger than this.

      You can make the moral argument against the death penalty, or you can make the practical one. However, to categorize this case as “flimsy” is absurd.

      1. After the murder, his shotgun was never found. He was seen leaving his house that night. He owned a pair of boots of the type used to kick down the door (size 7-1/2 Sears DieHard).

        Wait… what? The title at the top clearly says, “without physical evidence attaching him to murder”.

        This sounds like there is some evidence, just not enough to convince The Innocence Project (who wasn’t on the jury) and Ron called it at 12:32, saying that Reason is cherry-picking their facts.

      2. size 7-1/2

        Now I see why he’s so angry.

        1. They’ve got the wrong shotgun-carrying man who kicks in doors with size 7-1/2 shoes.

      3. Just for kicks, I looked up the average shoe size in the US. Turns out it’s 7.5 (or 254 mm).

        Yes, that’s an average of both mens’ and womens’ sizes but without physical evidence showing who kicked down the door… Well, that particular piece of evidence doesn’t seem so compelling anymore.

        1. 7.5 (or 254 mm)

          without physical evidence

          A circumstantial 254 mm?

          Being clearer, your assertion is that a woman with a size 7.5 shoe kicked in the door shot Woods and then beat Lance’s ex-wife to death or that some other man with size 7.5 shoe (the US average is 10.5) did the same?

          FFS! If Lance had a hook for a hand and there were scratch marks around the doorknob you poor idiots would be insisting that we do a metallurgical analysis on the scratches to confirm that it was, in fact, *his* hook. Jesus Christ, remind me never to call you people if I’m facing a murder conviction.

          I feel reserved about calling you poor idiots, but this is getting depressingly Clouseau-esque. I’m reminded of the scene from Saving Private Ryan where the shell-shocked/war-weary corporal allows the Nazi SS trooper to stab the private to death. Except this isn’t WWII Germany, none of us are shell shocked, and this piece of human trash is pretty objectively worse than your average Nazi.

          1. “Jesus Christ, remind me never to call you people if I’m facing a murder conviction.”

            But you definitely want them on the jury.

            Reading Reason on my tablet must have worked: I got out of the jury pool, and avoided having to sit for two weeks listening to some child custody case. So the magazine isn’t totally without value.

        2. He had the empty shoe box of that particular boot, which was identified by the mark when he kicked in the door. The boots were gone, with an odd and changing story about where they went.

          At some point, the phrase “reasonable doubt” has to give way.

          1. Like I said, it’s getting Clouseau-esque. You can almost picture some of these fools asking “And ow do we kneau eet was ees size seven and a ‘aff shoe?” as they roll their fingers under the meridian band on the globe.

  2. Call his execution a tragically delayed abortion and get over it.

    1. This

    2. OMG. I know it’s early, but this gets “Comment of the Year” in my book.

  3. “shocking her with a car battery”

    This case is not a great one to persuade people to drop support for the death penalty

    1. One of the ‘details’ they neglected to mention was that he had previously kicked in Woods’ (the shooting victim) door with a shotgun.

      As much as I want to fault the police for shoddy investigative work, I can’t fault them for starting with the last guy to kick in the victim’s door with a loaded gun.

      1. That doesn’t mean it’s okay that they stopped there with no solid direct evidence to link him to the murder.

        1. That doesn’t mean it’s okay that they stopped there with no solid direct evidence to link him to the murder.

          Any proof they stopped there or looked and didn’t find any evidence? Possibly even wanted to look and the DA said, “Don’t bother.” after finding out he’d kicked in the guy’s door before.

          Not saying he’s guilty, but the omission that he’d effectively perpetrated or rehearsed nearly the same crime 4 yrs. earlier is a glaring one. It’s a shame the jury convicted on such thin evidence but I don’t and wouldn’t feel any better if they tested the DNA and it pointed to John Smith and they went and got him.

  4. Prosecutors made their case based on his threats to kill his ex-wife and a long history of brutal abuse that included beating her with various objects, choking her, and shocking her with a car battery.

    Sounds like a real peach.

    1. BLM has Michael Brown, we have this guy . . .

  5. considering how Reason cherry picks its data lately I have no reason to believe anything they say about this case. That said I’m fine with keeping people in jail forever but don’t believe that will make it cheaper since life sentence can still be litigated for ever

    1. I had similar thoughts regarding Reason’s lack of objectivity. That said, it’s been over twenty years since this guy was out in death row. It’s hard to believe many stones have been interned in his case.

    2. Yeah, at this point I just assume that they’re omitting relevant facts until demonstrated otherwise. But they really went all out in this case; See Noscitur a sociis’ comment below.

      The real injustice here is that, after all he’d done prior to the murder, he was still walking the streets. What does it take to get locked up in this country?

  6. Why do I feel we’re getting the Mumia Abu Jamal version of “the facts”?

    Supporters believe Lance’s case was poorly argued as his lawyer failed to investigate and present evidence of his mental impairments.

    What does this – which deals with impairment driven non-culpability – have to do with a DNA test which only deals with whether he committed the act?

    Further what DNA? One person was killed by gunshot and the other bludgeoned but the weapon was not left behind. What are they supposedly testing? Some random material in the house?

    Excising detail from assertions to hide their weakness is a textbook media manipulation tactic.

    1. What are they supposedly testing? Some random material in the house?

      They test the DNA and it clearly puts Joe The Plumber, who has no alibi, at the scene; then what? Still no evidence and now the choice of suspects is the guy who *didn’t* kick in the door with a shotgun four years earlier and the one who did. Assuming Joe The Plumber has the shotgun because DNA is about as bad as letting this guy go because, while he is a violent psychopath, he’s not *the* violent psychopath.

    2. What I find maddening is that they actually have a good reason to test it. One of the items is the spent shotgun shell. That is probably the only item that definitively would have been touched by the murderer. This clear hole in the article isn’t even something to hide.

      The other is splinters that may have come from the butt of the shotgun. I find this one less credible. Both that there are other possibilities and that any usable DNA would even exist, as the outside would be obliterated by the blood from the victim or on the inside of the wood, which would obviously have no contact.

      https://www.ajc.com/news/local/condemned-man-children-call-for-dna-tests/rWyptAzkzYBU9lCtZ0FUzJ/

      1. What I find maddening is that they actually have a good reason to test it.

        Exactly the opposite, see above. There are only two possible outcomes, it’s his DNA on the shotgun shells, which isn’t needed to affirm the conviction they already had, or by your own tenets, we set the system loose to hunt down another potentially innocent man with even more tenuous evidence than the one we’ve got.

        The only way you conclude they have a good reason to test it is if you don’t believe the jury that convicted him, the judges that oversaw appeals, etc., etc.

        1. Perhaps I was unclear. I agree that it’s not good evidence. However, after reading this article, I was expecting the “DNA evidence” to be random debris. Typical nonsense from people who have watched too much CSI.

          However, the shotgun cartridge with a partial fingerprint was certainly held by the murderer.

          While I can see your point that it’s probably pointless. This is something that is not unreasonable to demand testing of. I was mostly annoyed that this extremely pertinent fact was not relayed.

          Additional, the article I linked to gets rather absurd on the amount of evidence against this guy. Most notably, they found that he had the box for the brand and size of boots that was used to kick in the door. Boots were missing. This is almost to comedy levels of certainty.

      2. The odds of recovering enough 23-year-old touch DNA from a spent shotgun shell that’s already been processed for fingerprints to construct a usable profile may greater than zero, but not by much.

        It’s also rather curious that—despite extensive litigation over his conviction and sentence in state and federal court—the first time Lance ever requested DNA testing was this past April.

  7. I am 100% against the death penalty, but as mentioned earlier in comments, this is not a sympathetic case. I find it hard to believe anyone could believe him to be innocent. Moreover, throughout the article it is stated that DNA testing should be done. But not once is it mentioned WHAT should be tested for DNA. Without a murder weapon what could possibly be tested that would exonerate him. This case does a severe disservice to persons on death row whose innocence COULD be proven with proper testing. Seems to me, the only thing that could and should save him from death is his mental competency. If that fails, let him fry.

    1. Seems to me, the only thing that could and should save him from death is his mental competency.

      This makes about as much sense to me as ‘test the DNA’. If the guy is a mentally deficient killing machine that goes off nearly randomly, there’s no reason to keep him locked up rather than flip the “off” switch. It’s like granting leniency to a polar bear or a wood chipper. I fail to see any sort of morality in granting leniency to *definitively* sub-human killing machines. I certainly agree that there are cases where the mentally ill or deficient can be manipulated into crimes unwittingly, but the broader position that effectively “there is no bottom to how stupid and dangerous a person can get before we’ll execute them” is a hallmark of the irrationality of anti-death penalty advocates. It strikes me as a stance taken by people too cowardly to shoot a rabid dog or otherwise kill an animal in pain.

  8. This asshole is a poster boy FOR capital punishment.

  9. Lance had long abused his ex-wife, both during their marriage and after their divorce, according to evidence at trial. He had beaten her with his fist, a belt and a handgun; had choked her; and had shocked her with a car battery, the summary says. He had also threatened her with flammable liquid, guns and a chainsaw.

    He had threatened multiple times to kill her and had asked a relative how much it might cost to hire someone to kill her and Wood, the summary says.

    He had previously gone to Wood’s home in 1993 with a shotgun and kicked in the door, the summary says. On that occasion, he left after a child in the home recognized and spoke to a friend who was with him.

    Why do we need witnesses or physical evidence to believe this man is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?

    1. Without cameras in everybody’s home, we’ll never know for sure who was/wasn’t murdered and who did/didn’t commit those murders. The obvious moral solution is to do away with the death penalty, put cameras in everyone’s homes, and more completely transform prisons into social rehabilitation centers. Rat cages administered by Miniluv, which leaves the suspect alive, are objectively more moral than executions.

  10. Lance has maintained his innocence in the crimes.

    You may be surprised to learn that people who are actually guilty of committing horrible crimes often maintain their innocence even after their conviction. Funny that.

    1. Indeed, when DNA testing became available, “everybody knew”, because Hollywood says so, that a large fraction were innocent.

      Yet very very few said, “Sure!” to new tests of old evidence, because the vast majority are guilty and knew that would seal their fate even more.

      So if a guy wants it, go for it, especially if the DNA comes from evidence used otherwise to prove guilt.

      1. Even guys who did it will agree to DNA testing some times. One, it delays their case. Delay it long enough, and they might get a CT or IL situation, where the governor just commutes everyone’s death sentence.

        Second, the defendant may even after all of this time honestly believe they didn’t do it. The human mind is weird, and denial is a powerful urge.

        Third, the defendant may think that the evidence will turn up their partner instead of them. Maybe that will induce someone like the Innocence Project to take a look, and get them off this hook.

        The I.P. usually picks better cases than this one to publicize.

        1. The I.P. usually picks better cases than this one to publicize.

          I think there’s a bit of selection bias going on. The slam dunk, “OMFG How could The State do this to a clearly innocent man!” cases get put out as a press release for the AP, CNN, WaPo, or other general consumption. The cases where “flesh-eating scumbag Nazi conceptually not guilty of killing and eating ex-wife” get routed to the unprincipled, libertine, bleeding hearts at Reason.

  11. The evidence at trial showed that Lance had a long history of abusing Joy Lance both before and after they divorced, including kidnapping her, beating her with his fist, a belt, and a handgun, strangling her, electrocuting her with a car battery, and threatening her with a flammable liquid, handguns, and a chainsaw. He had repeatedly threatened to kill her himself, and he had once inquired of a relative about what it might cost to hire someone to kill her and Butch Wood. Lance kicked in the door of Butch Wood’s home in 1993 armed with a shotgun, loaded a shell into the chamber of the shotgun, and then fled only after a child in the home identified and spoke to Joe Moore, Lance’s friend who was accompanying Lance that night.
    Shortly before midnight on November 8, 1997, Lance called Joy Lance’s father, asked to speak to her, and learned that she was not at home. Shortly afterward, a passing police officer noticed Lance’s automobile leaving his driveway. Lance arrived at Butch Wood’s home, kicked in the front door, shot Butch Wood on the front and the back of his body with a shotgun, and then beat Joy Lance to death by repeatedly striking her in the face with the butt of the shotgun, which broke into pieces during the attack. Joy Lance’s face was rendered utterly unrecognizable. Later that morning, Lance told his friend, Joe Moore, that Joy Lance (whom Lance referred to in a derogatory manner) would not be coming to clean Lance’s house that day; that Butch Wood’s father could not “buy him out of Hell”; and that both Joy Lance and Butch Wood were dead. Lance later told a fellow inmate that he “felt stupid” that he had called Joy Lance’s father before the murders, and Lance bragged to the inmate that “he hit Joy so hard that one of her eyeballs stuck to the wall.”

    Hall v. Lance, 687 S.E.2d 809, 811 (Ga. 2010).

    As a supporter of the death penalty, I strongly encourage opponents to continue using guys like this as their poster children.

  12. Sunday evening, November 9th 1997, just before church-time; I received a call from my Mother. She was crying.

    Her brother’s grandson and fiancée had been brutally murdered early that morning.

    Dwight “Butch” Wood Jr. was a divorced father of three young children. He was a hard-working man; tall, muscular, in great physical shape and had a very sweet spirit.

    Butch was an “over the road” trucker.

    Sabrina Joy Love Lance was 39 years old and the mother of a young son and daughter. She had divorced the children’s father after suffering years of physical and verbal abuse.

    Shortly before midnight on November 8, 1997, Donnie Lance called Joy Lance’s father, asked to speak to her, and learned that she was not at home.

    Shortly afterward, a passing police officer noticed Lance’s automobile leaving his driveway.

    Lance arrived at Butch Wood’s home, kicked in the front door, shot Butch Wood on the front and the back of his body with a shotgun, and then beat Joy Lance to death by repeatedly striking her in the face with the butt of the shotgun, which broke into pieces during the attack.

    Donnie Cleveland Lance had bought a new pair of boots at Sears.

    Joy Lance’s face was rendered utterly unrecognizable.

    Later that morning, Lance told his friend, Joe Moore, that Joy Lance (whom he referred to in a derogatory manner) would not be coming to clean Lance’s house that day; that Butch Wood’s father could not “buy him out of Hell”; and that both Joy Lance and Butch Wood were dead.

    Lance later told a fellow inmate that he “felt stupid” that he had called Joy Lance’s father before the murders. He bragged to the inmate that “he hit Joy so hard that one of her eyeballs stuck to the wall.”

    Joy’s head was almost severed.
    ********************************
    The Georgia Supreme Court summarized the facts of the case as follows:

    The evidence presented at trial showed the following: The bodies of the victims were discovered in Butch Wood’s home on November 9, 1997.

    Butch had been shot at least twice with a shotgun and Joy had been beaten to death by repeated blows to her face. Expert testimony suggested they had died earlier that day, sometime between midnight and 5:00 a.m. The door to Wood’s home had imprints consistent with size 7 1/2 EE Sears “Diehard” work shoes. Joy’s father testified he told appellant Joy was not at home when appellant had telephoned him looking for Joy at 11:55 p.m. on November 8.

    A law enforcement officer testified he saw appellant’s car leave appellant’s driveway near midnight. When questioned by an investigating officer, Lance denied owning Diehard work shoes; however, a search of Lance’s shop revealed an empty shoe box that had markings showing it formerly contained shoes of the same type and size as those that made the imprints on Wood’s door, testimony by Sears personnel showed that Lance had purchased work shoes of the same type and size and had then exchanged them under a warranty for a new pair, and footprints inside and outside of Lance’s shop matched the imprint on Butch Wood’s door.

    Officers also retrieved from a grease pit in Lance’s shop an unspent shotgun shell that matched the ammunition used in Wood’s murder.
    ***************************

    Days later, at funeral home; Mother and I stood by Butch’s casket. It was utterly gut-wrenching to see this beautiful young man lying there; his life cut short at age 33.

    Donnie Lance is at Jackson Diagnostic Prison in Butts County, Georgia, He’s lived more than 22 years at taxpayer’s expense.

    He was executed on January 29th 2020 at 7 p.m.

    1. Better 22 years late than never.

  13. Joy was my cousin I was very young when she died about 5 but I remember how it destroyed her father I remember the pain and the horror of what was done to her in graphic detail as it was all over the papers(small town was the news of the year). Donnie is a monster he’s a pure manipulative sociopath who uses people for his own ends and who made her and butch’s life a living hell even before he killed them. The only regret I have at seeing this thing exterminated from existence is that he can manipulate more people into think he’s some martyr and yes we (joys family) have very little to do with his kids cause they are tragically just more of his victims as he’s got this power over them that can only be categorized as cult like, I’m sorry they are hurting but maybe now they will see the truth that he doesn’t love them he is only using them.

  14. If Lance was mentally impaired, and if this was even partly responsible for his very bad behavior, then he had diminished responsibility and shouldn’t have been executed. Instead, he should have been imprisoned for life, not necessarily as punishment but to protect the public from him.

    Law enforcement view DNA evidence as conclusive proof if it fits their theory of the crime, but ignore it if it doesn’t.

    The Danielle van Dam case in San Diego in 2002 is a really good example of that. Law enforcement believe that the 7-year-old was kidnapped from her bed at night by neighbor David Westerfield, who then took her on a weekend trip in his RV, before killing her and dumping her body in a meadow.

    The DNA evidence implicating him consisted of a single drop of her blood in his RV, and a small faint blood stain on his jacket. There were also some human hairs and dog hairs in his house and RV which could have come from her and the family dog. That evidence can easily be innocently explained. Without going into all the details, she had visited him in his house just days earlier, and she could have been in his RV as well. The failure of the police search dogs to alert to her scent or a cadaver scent, is proof that this evidence of her was old.

    And there was other DNA evidence which didn’t implicate him: a blood stain on the blanket on her bed, another on a beanbag chair which she slept with on her bed (who does that?), and a hair under her body. None of that evidence might have had anything to do with the crimes, but it might have, yet the police just ignored it. Because they were so convinced it was Westerfield. Even though there was no actual evidence he had anything to do with it. They couldn’t find any evidence that he had been in her home, they couldn’t find any evidence he had been at the body dump site, they couldn’t find any evidence placing her with him that weekend. In short, this wasn’t a case with the claimed “mountain of evidence”. Instead, it was a case with a mountain of *missing* evidence. Despite which, he was convicted and sentenced to death, and has been on death row for 17 years.

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