Crime

Fresno judge rejects death row inmate's motion to dismiss his 1978 murder case

Douglas Stankewitz, 60, is the longest tenured condemned inmate at San Quentin State Prison. His case has returned to Fresno, Ca, Superior Court for a third retrial of his death sentence. But he and his lawyers are seeking his freedom.
Douglas Stankewitz, 60, is the longest tenured condemned inmate at San Quentin State Prison. His case has returned to Fresno, Ca, Superior Court for a third retrial of his death sentence. But he and his lawyers are seeking his freedom.

A Fresno Superior Court judge on Friday rejected a defense motion to dismiss death row inmate Douglas Ray Stankewitz's 1978 murder case, but invited Stankewitz legal team to file a new motion if they find new evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.

Judge Arlan Harrell made his ruling after hearing arguments from Fresno defense lawyer Peter Jones, legendary San Francisco attorney Tony Serra and his associate, San Francisco attorney Curtis Briggs.

Stankewitz, an American Indian known as "Chief" who is now 60, is the longest tenured condemned inmate at San Quentin State Prison.

Putting him to death hasn't been easy.

He was initially given the death penalty in 1978 for killing 22-year-old Theresa Graybeal after kidnapping and robbing her. But in 1982 the California Supreme Court tossed his first death sentence due to judicial error. A year later he was convicted by a different jury and sentenced to death again.

His case has returned to Fresno County Superior Court because a federal appellate court in 2012 overturned his second death sentence due to incompetent defense counsel. Fresno prosecutor Noelle Pebet is seeking to get Stankewitz's death sentence reinstated through a third jury trial. His trial is scheduled to start in April 2019.

Friday's hearing dealt with a gun that prosecutors say Stankewitz used to kill Graybeal in February 1978.

Stankewitz's legal team claimed that prosecutors, in order to get a death sentence, lied to jurors in both the 1978 and 1983 trials when they said Stankewitz used the same gun to kill Graybeal south of Fresno and in the attempted murder hours later of a farm worker outside a bar west of Fresno.

That's not true, his lawyers said, because Graybeal was shot with a .25 caliber handgun; .22-caliber shell casings were discovered at the scene where the farm worker was attacked.

Jones pointed out he didn't receive a report about the different shell casing evidence from the prosecution until 2017. And when Jones looked closer at the two shootings, he said he discovered that three .25-caliber shell casings that were test-fired from the Graybeal murder weapon were "in the evidence bag" for the farm worker shooting.

"They framed out client," Briggs argued. "They hid the evidence. This is a conspiracy by the prosecution to kill Mr. Stankewitz."

Another issue involved Billy Brown, who was 14 years old when he testified in Stankewitz’s two trials. According to Brown's testimony, Stankewitz raised a gun and shot Graybeal from about a foot away. “Did I drop her or did I drop her?” Brown quoted Stankewitz as saying.

For his testimony, Brown’s murder charge was dropped. But in a declaration Brown made in September 1993, he says he never saw Stankewitz with a gun and never heard him utter the words that led to the death sentence. Brown has died since making the declaration.

In ruling Friday, Harrell reminded the lawyers that in December he had ruled the prosecution's argument about Stankewitz shooting Greybeal and at the farm worker with the same gun didn't rise to dismissal of the murder case. He also said Brown's 1993 declaration was unreliable. After hearing arguments, Harrell said he still believed the case should not be dismissed.

After Friday's hearing, Stankewitz's legal team said they will ask an appellate court to overturn Harrell's ruling.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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