By David M. Greenwald
Fresno County, CA – In a move that surprised the defense team, a Fresno County judge in early June issued a request for an informal response to the writ of habeas corpus filed on March 8, 2021, in the 43-year-old case of Douglas Stankewitz.
“(T)he Court finds that further information is needed with respect to the claims presented,” Judge Arlan Harrell of Fresno County Superior Court wrote. “The Court requests an informal response to the claims raised in this petition within 45 days of service of this request.”
The judge added, “In the event that the California Attorney General’s Office declines to file an informal response, and defers the matter to the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office or another agency, the Attorney General’s office is directed to advise this Court and all parties, in writing, of any decision to defer the filing of the informal response.”
The writ of habeas corpus, written by legendary defense attorney Tony Serra along with Curtis Briggs, found new evidence that the case was mishandled by detectives and sheriff deputies in Fresno and that Stankewitz may have been framed for the murder of 22-year-old Theresa Graybeal in 1978.
On February 8, 1978, Stankewitz was arrested and accused of kidnapping, robbery, and murder. 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 October 12, 1978. Eventually his sentence was reduced to life without parole just a few years ago.
In 2017, new evidence was discovered, suggesting the high likelihood that Stankewitz was framed for murder and wrongfully convicted.
According to the November report, among the key documents discovered was a gun trace report, that showed the gun allegedly used in the crime had been in sheriff’s custody five years prior to the murder. The crime occurred in 1978, but the trace report showed the gun was in sheriff’s custody as early as June 1973.
Attorney Curtis Briggs, in addition, noted that the original report by the sheriff stated that three 22 caliber casings were collected at the crime scene. It is also stated that photos were taken of the .22 casings. The .22 shell casings and photos have never been produced to the defense.
Briggs believes that the .22 bullets from the Meras case were switched out with three of the 25 caliber shell casings from the Graybeal case gun, test-fired on February 11, 1978.
“[It was] an apparently successful attempt to deceive the jury, judge and Defense into believing that the physical evidence supported the notion that the same weapon was used in both crimes,” wrote Briggs in a January 2019 motion.
The Stankewitz legal team may now have a chance to introduce some of this evidence before a judge in an effort to finally clear Douglas Stankwitz for this crime committed over 43 years ago.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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