A proper end to the tragic case of death-row inmate Douglas Stankewitz

Douglas Stankewitz, 60, is the longest tenured condemned inmate at San Quentin State Prison. He will serve the rest of his life behind bars without the possibility of parole.
Douglas Stankewitz, 60, is the longest tenured condemned inmate at San Quentin State Prison. He will serve the rest of his life behind bars without the possibility of parole. Fresno Bee file

The longest-serving death row inmate in California, Douglas Stankewitz, saw his extensive appeals end not with a bang, but with a smirk.

On May 3 Fresno County Superior Court Judge Arlan Harrell sentenced Stankewitz to life in prison without parole. That took him off death row, but will leave him behind bars for the rest of his life for his role in murdering a 22-year-old woman in Fresno in 1978.

As Harrell announced the new sentence, Stankewitz smirked at him. Harrell smirked back. Stankewitz, an American Indian whose nickname is “Chief,” had hoped for a possibility of parole. But Harrell said “the court has but one option ... and that is life without the possibility of parole.”

It was the right decision and proper end to what is a sad, tragic case.

In 1978 Stankewitz, then 19, joined three others in kidnapping Theresa Greybeal in Modesto to rob her. They drove her to Fresno, and there Stankewitz shot her to death. “Did I drop her, or did I drop her?” he said to his accomplices after the killing.

After his arrest, Stankewitz claimed he did not kill the woman. The case got litigated twice in Superior Court, and both times Stankewitz was found guilty. But higher courts made findings that resulted in further hearings. After the first trial, the state Supreme Court reversed the verdict because Stankewitz’s competency to stand trial was not addressed. After the second trial, Stankewitz filed a motion with a federal appeals court, saying key evidence was not presented. That court found him guilty, but not deserving of death.

Last month the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office decided to recommend Stankewitz serve life without parole. He will remain at San Quentin State Prison, where he has been most of his adult life.

The DA’s decision was based on evidence of Stankewitz’s horrifyingly bad childhood. He was born into a poor home where there was never enough food to feed the 10 children. It was dirty, infested with vermin and did not have running water or electricity. While his mother was pregnant, she drank alcohol excessively, and his father hit her in the abdomen repeatedly. By the time he was 5, Stankewitz began sniffing paint, drinking alcohol and using drugs.

He was removed from the home at age 6, and was in government care for the next 13 years. During these placements, he was drugged, tied to beds, beaten, sexually molested, neglected, tortured and abused by the staff who was to care for him. It is no wonder that he has a borderline intellectual disability and IQ of 79.

Now 60, Stankewitz will not have the possibility of parole, despite his relatives’ hopes at that longshot chance. “He has been in prison for more than 40 years,” his aunt, Wilma Lewis, said after Harrell’s ruling. “It doesn’t seem fair.”

It was not fair for Stankewitz and the others with him that fateful February day in 1978 to kidnap and rob Greybeal for no other reason than to get transportation to Fresno and money to buy drugs. A fatal shot to her head meant a life cut short, her new husband to never again enjoy the company of her presence.

Gov. Gavin Newsom placed his moratorium on the death penalty in March, so the ultimate outcome became life without parole. That is little comfort to the relatives of Theresa Greybeal or Douglas Stankewitz. But such is the state of the death penalty in California today.