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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to ICT

An Indigenous man incarcerated 44 years in San Quentin Prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit will get a new hearing that could lead to his freedom.

California’s 5th District Court of Appeal ruled Tuesday, June 28, that Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz, a Monache man from Big Sandy Rancheria, is entitled to an evidentiary hearing that could make him eligible for parole.

Alexandra Cock, a member of Stankewitz’s legal team, described the 64-year-old man as “very optimistic” that he will eventually be free.

“He said, ‘Wow’,” Cock said of Stankewitz’s reaction when she told him of the court’s ruling. “He said it’s the next step toward freedom for him and he’s eager for us to present evidence … He’s always said it’s about the truth being exposed.”

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Stankewitz’s legal team contends he should have gotten a hearing in 2019 when a lower court reduced his sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole.

If the lower court had considered new evidence at that hearing, his legal team asserts, Stankewitz might have been eligible for parole at that time. He’ll now get the chance to present that evidence.

The appellate court also threw out Stankewitz’s current sentence, but he will remain in San Quentin until the court hands down a new sentence in the death of 22-year-old Theresa Graybeal in 1978.

New evidence

 Among the new evidence to be presented is an updated probation report, something the state appellate court ruled is warranted, and positive letters from prison officials about his time behind bars.

In deciding the life-without-parole sentence, the lower court concluded there were special circumstances in the case and enhancements for the use of a gun. The new probation report could change those findings.

“An updated probation officer’s report may assist the trial court in determining whether to exercise its discretion by striking the special circumstances findings or the gun use enhancements,” the appellate court wrote in its ruling. “The existing record lacks information pertaining to Stankewitz’s post-conviction conduct that may be relevant to the trial court’s sentencing decisions.”

Douglas Ray Stankewitz, 63, Monache, believed to be the longest-serving inmate on San Quentin Prison's Death Row, awaits a hearing in 2022 that could make him eligible for parole. He was convicted in the 1978 slaying of 22-year-old Theresa Graybeal. He originally received the death penalty but his sentence was later reduced to life in prison. (Photo courtesy of the California Department of Corrections)

In letters in the court file, San Quentin Prison guards and chaplains describe Stankewitz as courteous, helpful and respectful to prison staff and other inmates.

“When Chief is released, he will be a positive contributing member of society,” retired San Quentin Chaplain Earl A. Smith Sr. wrote in 2018. Prison Rabbi Paul Schleffar wrote in 2018 that Stankewitz “demonstrates maturity, a commitment to personal growth and if released to a life outside prison, will be a positive force in his family, community and hopefully the workforce moving forward.”

If released, Stankewitz would likely live with a member of his legal team, who will help him find employment and restart his life, she said.

Stankewitz filed a petition for the evidentiary hearing in January 2021 in Fresno County Superior Court, where he was convicted in 1978. Judge Arlan L. Harrell, who was appointed to the Superior Court in 2006, had not ruled on the petition in the 17 months since it was filed but instead has granted himself several extensions.

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Stankewitz petitioned the state appellate court to intervene, saying that Harrell had taken more time than allowed under the California Rules of the Court. California Attorney General Rob Bonta recommended denial of Stankewitz’s request for a new petition.

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.”

Family connections

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 court files.

They targeted Graybeal, who was shopping alone in Kmart, and followed her outside to her Mercury Cougar, where they pushed her inside and drove away.

Once in Fresno, they picked up Christina Menchaca, 25, so they could make a drug buy, according to court documents. After trying to sell Graybeal’s watch, Topping — the driver — stopped Graybeal’s car at 10th and Vine streets in Fresno and let everyone out except Menchaca, presumably so they could go score.

It was about 8 p.m., dark and raining. Graybeal apparently thought the group was abandoning her there. According to the case file, Stankewitz had told her earlier that she wouldn’t be harmed — they just needed a ride to Fresno and would eventually let her go.

Topping and Menchaca had not yet driven away when they heard a gunshot. Both women were stunned.

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“I thought they were just going to drop her off,” Topping told investigators. Testimony differs on what was said after Brown, Lewis and Stankewitz returned to the car, but the record shows that the group said little as they drove away from the scene.

No one in the group talked about motive during interviews with police. Cock speculates that whoever shot Graybeal did so “because she knew too much” — that she was a victim of a carjacking and kidnapping, and she had heard about their plans to make a drug score.

But, Cock said, “It was Chief’s intention that she not be harmed.”

Graybeal’s family reported her missing and police found her car at 11 p.m. outside a Fresno bar and brought Lewis, Menchaca, Stankewitz and Topping in for questioning; Brown had been dropped off at home and was brought in separately. Police officer found Graybeal’s body a couple of hours later at 10th and Vine.

Under questioning by police, Brown and Lewis said Stankewitz shot Graybeal. Topping and Menchaca said they were in the car and didn’t see who fired the shot.

Stankewitz was convicted and sentenced to die in San Quentin Prison’s gas chamber. Brown, a minor at the time, was granted immunity in exchange for testimony against the others, who were convicted of lesser crimes.

Stankewitz’s 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, Hugh Goodwin, 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.

Conflicting evidence

Among Stankewitz’s defense team’s contentions are that the evidence indicates Stankewitz is too tall to have fired the shot that killed Graybeal.

A forensic pathologist determined a small-caliber bullet entered near Graybeal’s right ear lobe, traveling at a 10-degree upward angle and exiting her skull behind her left ear. Stankewitz was 6-foot-1, the tallest of those involved. Graybeal was just over 5-foot-2.

Roger Clark, a certified police procedures consultant and retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s detective, wrote in 2019 that he believes a person shorter than Stankewitz fired the fatal shot. According to case documents, Brown was 5 foot 6, Lewis 5 foot 3, and Menchaca and Topping 5 foot 1.

The legal team is also questioning the testimony that identified Stankewitz as the gunman.

Brown initially testified that he saw Stankewitz shoot Graybeal, but he recanted that testimony in 1993, saying he had been threatened with being charged as an accessory if he didn’t testify against Stankewitz. Clark, the police procedures consultant, wrote that the content of Brown’s 1978 testimony “does not match the obvious physical facts.”

The legal team also points to a sworn declaration from 2020 by Laura Wass, Central California director of the American Indian Movement, who said Lewis admitted to her 20 years earlier that he had fatally shot Graybeal. Questions have also been raised about the handling of evidence.

Stankewitz believes investigators and prosecutors were biased against him because of prior confrontations his family had had with law enforcement. Stankewitz’s parents and several siblings had served or were serving prison time.

“It wasn’t me they wanted,” Stankewitz said. “It was any Stankewitz.”

Stankewitz doesn’t deny his past. His mother was an abusive alcoholic, and his father and siblings spent time in prison. Stankewitz alternated between foster homes, a state hospital and juvenile hall. When he was 15, he was the driver of a car fleeing the scene of an alleged robbery and assault; a passenger in the car was killed in a shootout between Stankewitz’s brother and a pursuing police officer.

But Stankewitz denies killing Graybeal.

“I was the target because I’m Indian and because of my family and my family name,” Stankewitz told ICT 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.”

Stankewitz said he wants Graybeal’s family to know he regrets her death but that he didn’t pull the trigger.

“That was a devastating loss to everybody,” he said. “I hold her in my prayers every morning, her and her family. I wish it hadn’t happened, but I didn’t do it.”

David Graybeal, who later remarried, told ICT that Stankewitz deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. He doesn’t support the death penalty, but believes life in prison without parole is a just punishment.

“It doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger. They were all guilty of kidnapping and murdering Theresa,” he said in an earlier interview. “She was a beautiful young woman who had her whole life ahead of her. They didn’t need to kill her.”

Meanwhile, Marlin Lewis died in 2000, Cock said. Teena Topping died in 2015 or 2016. Brown died in 2006. ICT could not confirm Menchaca’s whereabouts.

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