Richard Arlin Walker
Special to ICT
A Native man who has been incarcerated in San Quentin Prison for 44 years claims a local superior court judge is taking unnecessary delays in ruling on his petition for an evidentiary hearing.
Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz, a Monache man from Big Sandy Rancheria, asked a state appellate court to intervene to force a hearing on the issues or dismiss the case.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta responded on Friday, June 24, by recommending that the state court reject the man’s request.
—Monache man on Death Row maintains his innocence
—Remembering a life: 'She was a nice girl'
—Life Inside: California's longest-serving Death Row prisoner
—California court considers new hearing
Stankewitz filed the petition asking for the hearing in January 2021 in Fresno County Superior Court, where he was convicted in 1978 of a carjacking/murder he says he didn’t commit. Judge Arlan L. Harrell, who was appointed to the Superior Court in 2006, has not ruled on the petition in the 17 months since it was filed, but instead has granted himself several extensions.
The time Harrell is taking to decide the petition far exceeds the time allowed in the California Rules of Court, according to Stankewitz’s legal team. Bonta, however, said the time is not unreasonable considering the age of the case and the size of the case file.
“The record before the superior court contains around 9,000 pages,” Bonta wrote in an informal response requested by the state appeals court. “Given such a massive record, the superior court’s orders extending time for the informal response and to rule on the habeas petition are not outside of the bounds of reason.”
Bonta did not respond to ICT's request for comment.
Alexandra Cock, a member of Stankewitz’s legal team, said the team is preparing a response by the July 13 deadline. The appellate court will consider Bonta’s informal response and the response from Stankewitz’s legal team in making its decision.
SUPPORT INDIGENOUS JOURNALISM. CONTRIBUTE TODAY.
Stankewitz wants the three-judge appellate court to transfer his case to another county for an evidentiary hearing, or dismiss the case against him for “extensive, egregious law enforcement and prosecution misconduct” that Stankewitz’s legal team alleges led to his conviction and has kept him in San Quentin.
Now 63, Stankewitz has never wavered in his claims that he is innocent. “I’m not guilty,” he said in an earlier interview with ICT. “I am innocent and I was framed, and the physical evidence proves that.”
Stankewitz was sent to San Quentin’s Death Row in October 1978 to await execution in the gas chamber for the shooting death of Theresa Graybeal, 22, whom he and his friends carjacked in a Kmart parking lot in Fresno, California.
His conviction was overturned in 1982 because of doubts he had been competent to assist in his own defense. He was found guilty and sentenced to death again at retrial the following year, but his retrial attorney acknowledged in sworn written statements in 1989 and 1995 that he had failed to introduce Stankewitz’s mental health history, including psychiatric and psychological evaluations, that might have spared him the death penalty.
As a result, the penalty phase of the case was reversed in 2012 and Stankewitz’s death sentence was reduced in 2019 to life without parole. Stankewitz has chosen to stay in a cell on Death Row, saying it’s safer there than among the general population.
Cock said Stankewitz was entitled to a hearing before he was resentenced in 2019, but that didn’t happen. If the court had heard mitigating evidence at that hearing, Stankewitz might have received a life sentence with possibility of parole.
With time served, he would have been immediately eligible for release, she said.
On Feb. 8, 1978, Stankewitz, then 19, and three other young Indigenous Californians — Billy Brown, 14; Marlin Lewis, 22; and Teena Topping, 19 — were hitchhiking from Modesto to Fresno when they decided to steal a car, according to co-defendants’ statements in the case file. They targeted Graybeal, who was shopping alone in Kmart.
They let Graybeal out of the car in Fresno, but she was fatally shot before they drove away. Conflicting testimony raised questions about who fired the fatal shot; Stankewitz maintained he wanted to release the woman unharmed.
“I was the target because I’m Indian and because of my family and my family name,” Stankewitz told Indian Country Today in an earlier interview. “My family was known for violence, was known for trouble, was known to start trouble and to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But police knew I didn’t do it. They just wanted any Stankewitz.”
Brown, a minor at the time, was granted immunity for testifying against the others. Lewis, Menchaca and Topping were convicted of lesser charges. Lewis died in 2000, Cock said. Teena Topping died in 2015 or 2016. Brown died in 2006.
ICT could not confirm Menchaca’s whereabouts.
Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.