Douglas Stankewitz, next in line for the death chamber at San Quentin State… (Eric Risberg / Associated…)
Opponents of the death penalty, including The Times' editorial page, have been arguing for years that one of the biggest reasons to replace capital punishment with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole -- as California voters will have a chance to do in November under Proposition 34 -- is that it would prevent the state from mistakenly executing an innocent person. Avoiding that terrible outcome remains a top priority, but the case of Douglas R. Stankewitz points up another, less frequently mentioned flaw with our current system: Sometimes, even guilty people get unfair trials.
California hasn't executed anybody since 2006, thanks to legal challenges over whether our lethal injection procedures are humane. But if the death-cocktail bar were still open for business, Stankewitz would be first in line for the next shot, being that he is the state's longest-serving inmate on death row. The decision by California voters to reinstate the death penalty in 1978 didn't stop Stankewitz from kidnapping 32-year-old Theresa Greybeal of Modesto that same year, stealing $32 from her and then shooting her execution-style in the back of the head.
There is no dispute about Stankewitz's guilt: He almost certainly did it. What has been very much in dispute for years, though, is the competence of Stankewitz's defense counsel, and especially the question of whether the penalty phase of his trial was fairly conducted. On Monday, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it wasn't and said the penalty phase must either be reheard or Stankewitz's sentence must be reduced to life without the possibility of parole.
ENDORSEMENTS: The Times' recommendations for Nov. 6
This is the kind of thing that drives supporters of capital punishment crazy. To them, our legal system seems designed to protect criminals from suffering their rightful punishment by encouraging seemingly endless appeals. But a cursory look at Stankewitz's case shows why such close examination of the details of capital trials is necessary. Stankewitz's court-appointed private counsel, Hugh Goodwin, seems to have essentially phoned in his defense. He presented only six witnesses during the penalty phase, three of whom were there simply to discuss the power of God to redeem even the worst criminals. Goodwin "failed to conduct even the most basic investigation of Stankewitz's background," Judge Raymond C. Fisher wrote on behalf of the 9th Circuit majority.
That background is hair-raising. One of 10 children born to an alcoholic mother with a long criminal history and a father who was the leader of a motorcycle gang, he was abused as a child and removed from the home at age 6 after his mother beat him with an electrical cord. An emotionally damaged child who kicked his foster parents and attacked probation officers, he was institutionalized for most of his life and became a serious substance abuser at the age of 10. On the days leading to the murder he had been drinking, shooting heroin and smoking methamphetamine, facts never introduced during his penalty phase.
It is frequently pointed out that some people have horrifying childhoods yet don't grow up to be murderers. True enough, but when one does grow up to be a murderer, that kind of background is important information to present to a jury because it might incline them to support a lowered sentence. Supporters of capital punishment need to explain why it's fair for people who can afford decent counsel to present a balanced case and thus possibly avoid the death penalty, while people like Stankewitz end up on San Quentin's death row. In any event, his case shows why lengthy appeals are important; it also shows that, if the death penalty didn't exist and life without parole were the only alternative, they wouldn't be necessary.