Donnie Lance was convicted of taking the lives of Joy Lance and Butch Wood on Nov. 9, 1997.

On Jan. 29, 2020, the state took his.

Lance was executed with a lethal injection of pentobarbital, which was administered to him around 8:55 p.m. He was pronounced dead at 9:05 p.m.

The state allows five media witnesses to be in the room when the execution takes place. Since I represented the legal organ from the county of conviction, I served as monitor witness, observing the entire execution process from beginning to end.

It’s not a happy assignment — like covering a pep rally or writing a feature story — but it’s an important one.

The ability to take away someone’s life is arguably the greatest power our state holds. And as long as the state is allowed to carry out executions, it’s critical there be impartial witnesses in the room, both for documentation and accountability.

The following recollection from Lance’s execution is not intended to be gruesome, sensationalized or make light of the situation. Rather, it’s intended only to document a rare and major incident.

***

I arrived at the entrance of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson at exactly 5 p.m. as instructed.

One protestor stood across the street holding a large sign that read, “Don’t execute Donnie Lance.”

The other three media witnesses and I were soon given an update about Lance:

His schedule for the day included: visitation, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; routine physical, 3 p.m.; last meal, 4 p.m.; record last statement, 5 p.m.; and optional sedative, 6 p.m.

He had eaten most of his final meal, except for one of the chili burgers.

He was visited earlier in the day by 15 family members, one friend and three attorneys.

He declined to record a final statement.

Shortly after 6 p.m., we were escorted by van to the prison’s entrance where we went through security and turned over our car keys and identification. We’d left behind all other items in our vehicles (cell phones, jewelry, etc.).

We walked down a long hallway lined with inspirational posters with words like “Integrity” and “Dedication” printed on them, along with a bulletin board for employee news and a “Wall of Shame” for corrections employees who had made some infraction.

We climbed a set of stairs and collected a notepad and two yellow No. 2 pencils. Staff members situated us in a small cafeteria and we were offered food and drinks that had been set up on a table. “Terminator Genisys” played on a television.

We waited there for a little over an hour as the final U.S. Supreme Court decision was made, refusing a stay of execution.

At 8:10 p.m., we got word that it was almost time and we should prepare.

Shortly after, I was transported separately from the other media witnesses to the small building where the executions take place, “The Death House.” Two armed officers stood outside the building, which had two red exterior doors.

We got out of the vehicle around 8:35 p.m. and entered the execution building, stepping immediately into the viewing/observation room.

Inside, three long wooden church-style pews faced a large observation window. Paper bags were placed on the end of the pews, presumably for those who may get sick during the execution.

On the other side of the large observation window sat the gurney that Lance would later be strapped onto. It was positioned perpendicular to the pews, with the feet closest to the pews and the head furthest away.

There were three bright yellow doors in the building. The sunny color seemed out-of-place given the somber nature of what occurs there. One yellow door to the right of the pews in the viewing room reportedly leads to a closet that houses the old electric chair, which is no longer in use.

I was seated on the front pew, directly in front of the gurney, to witness the preparations.

Multiple guards soon walked backwards forming a human chain, leading Lance out through a yellow door into the execution room. Lance was facing forward with his hands restrained in front of his chest/face. He appeared calm and was cooperative with officers.

Lance was then placed on the gurney and strapped down using multiple restraints.

During that time, Lance stared at the ceiling and sometimes looked at the officers. He began wiggling his socked feet, which he continued doing throughout the execution process. He also moved his mouth throughout the preparations and early part of the execution. It’s impossible to know if he was singing, praying or talking since the execution room is a silent room when the microphone is turned off.

There were six guards in total who strapped Lance down to the gurney. They were dressed in sky blue uniforms. When they completed restraining him, the six officers moved away all at once in a choreographed, militaristic and fluid motion. The warden checked each of the restraints and Lance closed his eyes. Four of the six officers marched out of the room.

Almost immediately, a man and woman in white medical jackets walked in and inserted the two IVs (one in each arm). Lance appeared to begin breathing a little heavier at that time, but the IV insertion was completed quickly.

Tubes that would administer the deadly pentobarbital were connected to the IV. Those tubes actually go through a wall, so witnesses don’t see when the drug is administered, unless they can see it begin to flow down the tubes. Lance was hooked up to a heart monitor and one of the guards then taped down his fingers (not including his thumbs).

The gurney was raised and angled slightly forward, with Lance facing the viewing room.

The two officers grabbed a white blanket and spread it over Lance’s body — from his torso to his ankles.

The preparations were completed by 8:45 p.m.

At that time, I was moved to the back pew. Family and attorneys were brought in to sit on the first two rows. (I’m not clear which family members were present as we were immediately escorted out following the execution and no witness list was provided. There appeared to be about eight family members in attendance.) The other media witnesses then entered and sat on the pew alongside me.

Around 8:52 p.m., the warden asked Lance if he had a final statement or wanted a prayer said over him. He refused both.

Lance’s eyes were open during that time, but closed shortly after. His mouth moved as if speaking or praying.

The warden continued and read the execution warrant around 8:55 p.m. and the drugs were administered shortly after.

The crowd was silent, with a few coughs interrupting.

Around 8:57 p.m., Lance’s body jerked slightly and he let out a sharp breath, which forced his mouth open. His mouth remained open after that.

A woman in the front row let out quiet sobs and was comforted by a man who patted her leg.

You could physically tell that the life was draining out of Lance. His skin turned pale and waxy, most notably on his face.

At 9:05 p.m., two men entered the room and checked Lance’s eyes and pulse. One of them nodded to the warden, a confirmation that Lance had passed. The warden announced the execution had been carried out and the time of death was 9:05 p.m.

The curtain inside the execution chamber was drawn shut.

I was quickly escorted out of the building.

***

That day, it didn’t hit me the enormity of what I was observing.

I was working and taking notes, afraid to miss any second, any twitch, any breath.

The execution itself was also unexpectedly quick as a witness, but mercifully quick for Lance.

And the entire day was highly-choreographed and orchestrated — from the schedule of the evening to who stood where at what time.

It’s easy to forget the human element in that situation.

But after reflecting the days following the execution, it’s hard to ignore the significance of what I witnessed: A man’s life taken from him.

Lance was a man convicted of doing a brutal, evil thing to two other people. He was a man who was surely despised — at least to some degree — by the victims’ families. He was a man who was loved deeply by his children, who mourned the loss of their mother and now must mourn the loss of their father.

He was a man whose life was taken from him.

That’s a sobering thing to witness.

Alex Buffington is an editor for Mainstreet Newspapers. She can be reached at alex@mainstreetnews.com.

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