California's longest-serving death-row inmate won an appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday. A 2-1 panel ruled that Douglas R. Stankewitz was entitled to a new penalty-phase trial based on ineffective counsel, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Stankewitz has been on death row in California since 1978, when he was convicted of kidnapping and murdering Theresa Greybeal.
Stankewitz has spent years challenging his sentence in both state and federal appeals. In 2004, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found ordered U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii to hold an evidentiary hearing on Stankewitz's habeas petition. This week, the Ninth Circuit majority concluded that Judge Ishii did not commit clear error in finding that Hugh Goodwin, the attorney who represented Stankewitz during sentencing, inadequately prepared for the penalty phase of Stankewitz's trial.
Stankewitz's appellate counsel argued that Goodwin was so fixated on convincing jurors of the potential for redemption through God that he failed to present a potentially-successful case in mitigation based on the Stankewitz's "horrifying childhood," Courthouse News Service reports. On appeal, his lawyer argued that Goodwin should have presented evidence that Stankewitz's mother subjected him to beatings and electronic shocks at a young age, and that he had a history of mental illness, (possibly related to fetal alcohol syndrome and childhood abuse), and substance abuse.
The habeas attorney further noted that Stankewitz had binged on alcohol, heroin, and methamphetamine, and had not slept, for at least 48 hours before the murder, according to Courthouse News.
While Stankewitz could be sentenced to death once again after a new penalty trial, California voters might step in to give him a reprieve. Next week, Californians will vote on Proposition 34, an initiative to repeal the death penalty in the state.
- Stankewitz v. Wong (Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Death Penalty Stands for Lynwood Cop-Killer (FindLaw's California Case Law Blog)
- Cal. Supreme Court Vacates 110 Year Sentence for Juvenile Offender (FindLaw's California Case Law Blog)