A judge on Friday denied a motion for a new trial in the Fresno County Superior Court for Douglas Ray Stankewitz, California’s longest-serving death row inmate. Stankewitz, 59, was convicted nearly 40 years ago for the 1978 kidnapping of a 22-year-old woman outside a Modesto Kmart and her shooting death in Fresno.
San Francisco civil rights attorney J. Tony Serra and his colleague Tyler Smith, along with defense lawyer Curtis Briggs, took over Stankewitz’s case in October 2016, offering to work pro bono. Serra, 82, took interest in the case because he believes American Indians such as Stankewitz are too poor to afford good legal counsel.
Stankewitz’s death sentence was originally overturned in 1982, then the following year he was again convicted and sentenced to death. 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 but only ruled that a new jury should determine whether Stankewitz should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole.
On Friday, Serra cited incompetent former legal counsel, an affidavit that a now-deceased witness left behind and the discovery of new evidence as reasons for a new trial, but Judge Arlan Harrell said those issues have been raised and resolved by previous courts.
Harrell did not address the application the defense filed for a habeas corpus release, which would have to show Stankewitz was wrongly imprisoned due to a legal or factual error. Serra said he believes Stankewitz was shackled and handcuffed as he spoke to the judicial panel in a previous trial, an event that Serra called “outrageous.”
No jury is going to find death is an appropriate penalty for this human being.
San Francisco civil rights attorney J. Tony Serra, representing defendant Douglas Ray Stankewitz
Holding up a large stack of files on the matter, Harrell said he would accept the request but told Serra, “I don’t want redundancy.”
Harrell denied a defense request in April to issue a gag order against retired Appellate Justice James Ardaiz, who convicted Stankewitz of murder in the 1970s. Speaking to The Bee in October 2016, the former 5th District Court of Appeal judge said, “Doug Stankewitz did what I convicted him of doing – a cold-blooded, premeditated murder.”
Outside the courtroom, Serra said although Friday’s ruling was not what he was looking for, he is still optimistic. He said he thinks Stankewitz will fare better in an appellate court, and he isn’t worried if the habeas corpus application isn’t accepted.
“No jury is going to find death is an appropriate penalty for this human being,” he said, explaining that Stankewitz has a different mentality and personality than he once did. “Law enforcement will come forward to be character witnesses. They are willing to help us.”
The next court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 11.