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Death sentence of state's longest-serving death row inmate overturned

October 29, 2012 |  5:31 pm

A federal appeals court Monday overturned the death sentence of California’s longest serving death row inmate on the grounds that his defense lawyer failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence during the penalty phase of his murder trial.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decided 2-1 that Douglas R. Stankewitz, convicted of murdering Theresa Greybeal in Fresno in 1978, should be re-sentenced to life without possibility of parole unless prosecutors retry the penalty phase of his murder case.

Death penalty trials are divided into two parts. The jury first decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If guilt is established, the jury then decides whether to recommend a death sentence or life without parole.

The 9th Circuit majority said Stankewitz’s lawyer presented only a “paltry” amount of evidence in trying to persuade jurors against a death sentence, ignoring extensive documentation of the defendant’s “deprived and abusive upbringing,” potential mental illness, long history of substance abuse and use of drugs leading up to the murder.

Stankewitz was born into a filthy, poverty-stricken home without running water or electricity to an intellectually impaired alcoholic mother and an abusive, alcoholic father, the court said. By the age of six, Stankewitz already was severely emotionally damaged, the court said.

Judge Raymond C. Fisher, writing for the court, said the jury might have opted for a life sentence had it learned of Stankewitz’s life story and his heavy use of drugs in the hours before the murder. Stankewitz's defense lawyer “did not obtain a psychological examination of Stankewitz, despite his belief that Stankewitz was not mentally competent, and did not pursue any of the evidence of Stankewitz’s history of drug and alcohol abuse,” wrote Fisher, a Clinton appointee.

The ruling upheld a decision by a district court judge who examined the case. Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, a Reagan appointee, dissented. O’Scannlain contended the lower court applied the wrong legal standard and argued that the case should have been returned to the district court for reconsideration under a different standard.

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-- Maura Dolan

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