By Roxanna Jarvis
CALIFORNIA – Alexandra Cock, who is part of the legal team fighting for the release of Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz—the longest serving individual on death row in California—told The Vanguard late last week how the legal team was created, the impacts of COVID-19, and updates on the case.
“Chief’s freedom is so important to me that I will risk the possibility of getting sick [with COVID-19] by coming and doing this, being around other people,” Cock confided to Vanguard Reporter Roxanna Jarvis in January during an in-person interview. Though she noted that she followed all recommendations for mask wearing and physical distancing as well as the prison screening for COVID each visit.
Cock, who met Stankewitz through a mutual friend in 2014, is considered at high risk of severe illness if she were to contract COVID-19. But her relationship with Stankewitz, and the journey she has had since learning of his story, has trumped her concerns over the virus.
“It’s just part of doing what I think is the right thing. It’s so important for Chief’s story to get told,” she continued.
Other members of the legal team include renowned lawyer J. Tony Serra and Curtis Briggs, whom The Vanguard interviewed in January as well.
On Feb. 8, 1978, Stankewitz was accused of kidnapping, robbing, and murdering 22-year-old Theresa Graybeal. Four other individuals: Marlin Lewis, Christina Menchaca, Tina Topping, and 14-year-old Billy Brown, were also involved and arrested.
Despite pleas of innocence, in just eight short months, Stankewitz was charged with murder and sentenced to death on Oct. 12, 1978. Over the decades, Stankewitz has been resentenced to death, had six scheduled execution dates, and in 2019 had his sentence reduced to life without the possibility of parole.
In 2017, new evidence was discovered, suggesting the high likelihood that Stankewitz was framed for murder and wrongfully convicted.
The legal team acknowledges that the murder of Theresa Graybeal was a tragedy and believe it is important to ensure that justice is served by assigning responsibility to the correct person—and to them, that person is not Stankewitz.
In a follow-up interview via Zoom, Cock and Roxanna dive deeper into the case from a more personal perspective.
VANGUARD: You were someone that put [the Habeas] together and you know a lot about Chief. So, could you explain when you first met Chief and what made you want to get involved in his case?
“I was introduced by a mutual friend [who said], ‘Well, you’re a lawyer…What do you think about what’s happened? Do you have any ideas about how to help him?” Cock answered.
Although Cock had not practiced law for decades, she decided to visit Stankewitz and listen to his story.
“He started telling me and giving me information about his case, and I was sitting there just kind of quizzical going, ‘Well that can’t be right’ and ‘That doesn’t make sense,’ she continued. “I was not really in a state of disbelief because I understand the criminal legal system…but [I was] surprised nonetheless.”
Stankewitz then sent her a box of discovery and one of the first things Cock came across was a gunshot residue report (GSR), which showed that Stankewitz tested negative.
“Well, how can they convict him of being the shooter if the GSR report came back negative? So, that was kind of the motivator for me to say, ‘Well, if that’s the case, then I’ve got to dig deeper and figure out what the heck happened here,” explained Cock.
Afterwards, Cock began to conduct legal visits with Stankewitz on a regular basis, all the while attending legal education seminars on the death penalty and criminal defense.
She accredits the current successes of their legal fight toward Stankewitz and their teamwork. “Chief and I, over the years, we’ve really worked as a team…We would not be where we are now in this case if he had not [explained] so many things to me.”
VANGUARD: How has the case grown from 2014 [to present day]?
“[In the beginning] I started contacting lawyers…and everybody kept turning me down,” Cock replied.
After years of searching, she was able to get lawyers Tony Serra and Curtis Briggs to represent Stankewitz. Since 2017, they have worked pro bono on the case.
“Part of the reason that we’ve worked so well together as a team is because between all of us, Curtis, Tony, and me, we agreed: We’ve got to look at the evidence…It was actually a really big day when we went to the Fresno Sheriff’s Office and the Fresno courthouse and actually physically looked at the evidence,” continued Cock, adding that it was the first time that any of Stankewitz’s lawyers had done so.
There, they discovered a number of things that made Stankewitz’s guilty verdict questionable, including the alleged murder weapon and its holster, which had the initials of Thomas Lean, III, one of the lead detectives engraved on it.
Concluding her response, Cock stated, “The fact that we went to see the evidence and started asking questions about [it], I think that all really cemented our relationship with Chief.”
VANGUARD: Regarding COVID, could you talk about the first time [Stankewitz] got COVID and the impact the pandemic has had on him?
“Yeah, so he got COVID in June,” Cock replied. “So [the prison] told [everyone incarcerated] that if they exhibited symptoms like lower oxygen or a [high] temperature, they would send them into isolation. Isolation is punishment…and they don’t have phone access. They’re even more isolated from everybody else.”
Cock continued to say how this was part of the reason why Stankewitz did not disclose to her that he was sick until around two weeks later. “He was sick for 10 to 14 days. He said it was like a bad case of the flu. He stayed in his cell [the whole time] because he did not tell them anything.”
As of today, Stankewitz is still suffering from the long-term effects of the virus. One of his more notable side effects is his brain fog.
“I used to read him books during our calls as a way of giving him additional mental stimulation and something else to think about…and once he got COVID, he did not want to do that anymore,” Cock explained.
According to Stankewitz, he has a hard time following the stories Cock reads to him and now has a hard time remembering simple things like what he ate the day before.
Another effect is arthritis in his joints, first in his hand and now in his knee. Cock continued saying, “He’s had nights where the pain is so bad that he can’t sleep…His knee is hurting at different times and hurts so much that he can’t walk.”
Stankewitz was able to receive an X-ray that confirmed the arthritis. But medical help is very limited at San Quentin. and in some cases has been unavailable since the beginning of the pandemic.
Stankewitz suffers from high blood pressure and has been taking medication for years to manage it. But the pandemic has put a halt to visits from Stankewitz’s cardiologist. “He hasn’t seen that doctor in almost 12 months,” Cock said.
One positive is that Stankewitz is due for his second shot of the COVID vaccine any day now. “I just want Chief to make it through so that he can get out. Every day there’s always a risk that he could get sick and die,” said Cock with a pause afterwards.
“And I know that’s what the state is counting on so their problem will go away. And I just find that so distressing and so inhumane. I worry about him all the time,” she concluded, giving a long sigh as she stared off into the distance.
VANGUARD: Since we last had our interview in early January, have there been any updates on the case?
“We filed our habeas [in October] in the Fifth District Court of Appeal. On Jan. 7,” she said, “The Fifth District issued a ruling saying if there are any factual issues [in the habeas] we have to file it in [Fresno] Superior Court.”
According to law in California, the court of appeals in the state cannot make any factual determinations. Only superior courts in California are able to do so. This, as Cock explained, presents an issue for Stankewitz and his legal team.
“Chief has not gotten a fair hearing in Fresno [Superior Court] in 43 years…that is why we filed it there (Court of Appeals). There is a basis to believe [the three judges on the court of appeals] would have a different perspective on the case than one superior court judge,” expressed Cock.
Due to this, the legal team filed their habeas again on Jan. 28, this time to Fresno Superior Court. But they faced a couple other obstacles: One being the inability to electronically file their habeas, and the other being a minor technical issue.
Since the Fresno Superior Court does not accept electronic filings for criminal-related cases, the legal team had to print out almost 10,000 pages to submit to the court (the habeas, exhibits, and court transcripts). “Which you know, being an environmentalist, makes my hair stand up,” commented Cock.
After submitting the habeas, the legal team heard back from Judge Arlan Harrell three weeks later that they would have to submit it for the third time, since the habeas had an electronic signature instead of a wet signature. They resubmitted the habeas on March 8 and are currently waiting for a response from Judge Harrell.
Regarding Stankewitz’s sentencing appeal, his lawyer Elizabeth Campbell is currently preparing the reply to the Attorney General’s response to Campbell’s opening brief.
The legal team received “a win” from the Attorney General’s response on Dec. 17, which essentially stated that Judge Harrell was wrong about the scope of his discretion to resentence Stankewitz in 2019. The response claims that the trial needs to be sent back to court.
Overall, one thing that gives Cock hope is the fact that the fight for Stankewitz’s freedom involves people of all ages. “I love that we have a lot of the generations covered. We have Tony, who just turned 86, we have me, 65, we have Curtis who is 46, we have Marshall (Curtis’ former intern) who is 25, and we have you,” explained Cock, referring last to Vanguard Reporter Roxanna Jarvis.
Jarvis has been assisting the legal team ever since she co-wrote the first Vanguard investigation about Stankewitz’s case in November with Vanguard reporter Cailin Garcia. Jarvis recently turned 22 years old.
“That’s one thing I’ve loved about this case,” Cock further commented. “We’re all working on this together and we all understand the importance of it and I think that’s a really positive thing.”
“If we could take that same energy and apply it to the challenges that we all face, then we can come up with solutions. And part of that is working together and supporting each other,” ended Cock.
Roxanna Jarvis is a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley, currently majoring in Political Science with a minor in Public Policy. She is from Sacramento, California.
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