Circuit Overturns a California Death Sentence

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the death sentence of Douglas R. Stankewitz Monday, ruling that his defense lawyer failed to adequately investigate or tell jurors of his life of abuse, long history of drug use and mental illness.

Judge Raymond Fisher, writing in the 2-1 majority, upheld reversal of the death sentence by trial Judge Anthony Ishii in Los Angeles and sent the case back to the state trial court for new penalty phase hearings.

Stankewitz was convicted in 1978 and sentenced to die for the murder of Theresa Greybeal. Stankewitz’s first conviction was overturned but he was convicted again in a second trial.

The appeals court held that his appointed private trial attorney Hugh Goodwin rendered ineffective assistance during the penalty phase “by failing to investigate and present available mitigating evidence,” Fisher said.  He was joined by Judge Jay Bybee.

Stankewitz’s penalty phase presentation consisted of just six witnesses, just four of them in court, and provided minimal information.  Fisher said the details of his life on Indian reservations and troubles were minimal and that Goodwin failed to conduct “even the most basic investigation of Stankewitz’s background.”  He never hired and investigator or interviewed teachers, foster parents or psychologists.

In addition, he failed to investigate or rebute prosecution suggestions that Stankewitz shot a police officer, even though evidence to undermine that claim was readily available.

If he had, jurors might have learned from thousands of pages of documents in the first trial that Stankewitz’s his father brutally beat his mother, including while she was pregnant with Stankewitz, and both parents were alcoholic and abused the children, according to the court  The home Was dirty, filled with cockroaches and fleas, without electricity or running water and often no enough food for nine siblings, who were ‘highly neglected,’ according to the court.

He was removed from his parents at age six but spent years in institutions, resulting in poor social adjustment.  At age 12, he was placed with his aunt, just before his mother was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the shooting death of a man.  A year later he was returned to his father, who was out of prison, but Stankewitz ran away after his father beat a brother with a whip.

He frequently ran away, had behavior problems and under achieved in school, finally beginning anti-social behavior in and out of institutions.

Jurors did not hear the details of his life as mitigation against a death sentence during his second trial.

Jurors had a difficult time with what they did hear, according to the majority.  Several initially voted for life without parole, but after “extensive deliberation” a final holdout was convinced to vote for death.  If his excruciating life history had been on the mitigating side of the scale it might have been different, according to the court.

Eight years ago, the appeals court found Stankewitz might have a claim of ineffective assistance and sent the case back to give the state a chance to rebut the claim and now wants to do it again.  There is no good reason, according to Fisher.

The court ordered the state to provide a new penalty phase hearing for Stankewitz or sentence him to life without parole.

In dissent, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain argued the majority did not apply the correct prejudice standard.  He said the case should have been sent back to Ishii to apply the correct standard.

Instead, the effort to apply the standard themselves has “my colleagues flailing in the dark.”

Case:  Stankewitz v. Wong, No.  10-99001



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