Legendary San Francisco attorney J. Tony Serra is taking over the case of Douglas Ray Stankewitz, who is awaiting a third retrial in Fresno County Superior Court in the shooting death of 22-year-old Theresa Graybeal in February 1978.
And the 81-year-old Serra plans to bring his San Francisco legal team with him to defend the longest-tenured inmate on California’s death row.
On Monday, attorney Curtis Briggs informed Judge Arlan Harrell that he, Serra and attorney Tyler Smith have reviewed critical evidence in the case and are ready to defend Stankewitz without further delays.
And before he left the courthouse, Briggs made a bold prediction: “We intend to walk him out the door.”
We intend to walk him out the door.
San Francisco attorney Curtis Briggs
Harrell tentatively approved the substitution, as long as Serra signs the appropriate paperwork within two or three days. Because Briggs gave his word that Serra would sign the paperwork, Harrell gave the go-ahead to Fresno defense attorney Peter Jones, who has been representing Stankewitz, to turn over evidence in the case to Serra’s legal team.
The evidence is contained in 44 boxes, several thumb drives and on a hard drive, Jones told the judge. Stankewitz’s trial is tentatively scheduled to start in October 2017.
Stankewitz, 58, appeared in a good mood in the courtroom when the judge allowed the substitution.
Serra, who did not attend Monday’s hearing, is a well-known civil rights lawyer, activist and tax resister. He was the subject of the 1989 movie “True Believer” about a murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown in which he won an acquittal for death row inmate Chol Soo Lee.
Serra also has successfully defended Black Panther leader Huey Newton in a murder trial and represented individuals from groups as diverse and politically charged as the White Panthers, Hells Angels, Good Earth and New World Liberation Front.
In 2001, Serra represented Sara Jane Olson, who was a fugitive for more than two decades before she pleaded guilty in 2001 to two counts of possessing explosives with intent to murder, and in 2003 to second-degree murder, both stemming from her membership in the radical Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s. She received a sentence of 14 years in prison and was paroled in 2009.
Outside court Monday, Briggs said Stankewitz, who is American Indian and known as “Chief,” first talked to Serra three decades ago about taking over his case and has been in contact with Serra over the years.
Briggs said Serra took the case because he believes American Indians like Stankewitz are too poor to afford good legal counsel. “Tony has a special fondness for American Indians and their causes,” said Briggs, who pointed out that the substitution comes at no extra cost to taxpayers because Serra has taken a vow of poverty and charges his poor clients very little. “Doug’s supporters have promised to chip in,” Briggs said.
Doug Stankewitz did what I convicted him of doing – a cold-blooded, premeditated murder.
Former Fresno prosecutor James Ardaiz
Stankewitz’s claim of innocence could be difficult to prove.
In 1982, the California Supreme Court overturned Stankewitz’s first death sentence. The following year, he was again convicted and sentenced to death, but that didn’t hold up, either.
In 2012, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that death sentence because of incompetent legal representation. The court didn’t overturn his murder conviction. It only ruled that a new jury should determine whether Stankewitz should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Court records say Stankewitz was 19 in February 1978 when he and three others from Fresno – Billy Brown, 14, Marlin Lewis, 22, and Teena Topping, 19 – got stranded in Modesto. Outside a department store, they forced Graybeal into her car and drove off.
In Fresno, they drove to the Calwa area, picked up Christina Menchaca, 25, and looked for heroin to buy. Later, they stopped at Vine Avenue and 10th Street.
According to Brown’s testimony, Stankewitz raised a gun and shot Graybeal from about one foot away. “Did I drop her or did I drop her?” Brown quoted Stankewitz as saying.
Brown’s murder charge was dropped for testifying against Stankewitz. Lewis pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Menchaca and Topping pleaded guilty to being accessories. Since then, Brown, Lewis and Topping have died.
Briggs did not give details about any defense to the charges, but Stankewitz and his supporters point to a declaration Brown made in September 1993. In it, Brown says he never saw Stankewitz with a gun and never heard him utter the words that led to his death sentence.
Key witness Billy Brown, who has since died, says he was pressured to give false testimony against Stankewitz. Read Brown’s 1993 declaration here.
According to Brown, on the ride to Fresno, Lewis held the victim and had a knife to her throat. After arriving in Fresno, the group picked up Machaca at a bar and went to 10th and Vine to buy drugs, he says.
While Menchaca went into a house to get drugs, Brown says, Stankewitz and Lewis got out of the car. Topping told Brown to remain in the car. “When I slid into the front seat onto the console, I heard a gunshot,” Brown says. “I looked to the right and saw Doug Stankewitz and Marlin Lewis coming toward the car. Teresa Graybeal was already on the ground.”
Brown says: “I did not see who pulled the trigger.” But he says he heard Lewis say “could we have dropped her or could we have dropped her.” He says he never heard Stankewitz say anything about “dropping her.” Rather, “it was Lewis who said that,” Brown says.
After the shooting, Brown told his mother about the shooting and she called police. In his declaration, Brown says the prosecutor, James Ardaiz, told him if he did not testify, he would be charged with homicide. He says Ardaiz “schooled” him how to testify and remembered going to the prosecutor’s office on weekends to go over his testimony.
He says Ardaiz promised to give him a new identity and move him and his mother out of town. He also said he was given alcohol before he testified “to relax my nerves.”
“I was usually buzzed on the stand,” he says.
Brown says he tried in court to give a true account of what happened, but Ardaiz stopped him. He said Stankewitz’s lawyer never interviewed him.
“I give this four-page statement of my own free will, without promise of reward or threat of coercion of any kind,” he says.
On Monday, Ardaiz, who retired as presiding judge of the 5th District Court of Appeal, said Brown’s declaration is untruthful and “simply ridiculous.”
Ardaiz contends Brown was “scared to death of Doug Stankewitz” and under pressure by Stankewitz’s supporters and other American Indians to change his testimony. Ardaiz said he doubts that Lewis killed Graybeal. “He was a wimp, very low-key,” Ardaiz said.
Nearly four decades after Stankewitz was first convicted, Ardaiz said he has no doubt that Stankewitz killed Graybeal: “Doug Stankewitz did what I convicted him of doing – a cold-blooded, premeditated murder.”