by Robert J Hansen
The legal team of Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz sent an open letter to Fresno District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp in February requesting a hearing to present evidence that they believe proves his innocence.
Stankewitz’s legal team, composed of Alexandra Cock, J. Tony Serra, Marshall Hammons, and Curtis Briggs are working the case pro bono.
Serra has gotten many murder charge acquittals in his over fifty-year defense attorney career. Briggs led the defense team for Max Harris, who was acquitted of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter from the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland.
On February 8, 1978, Stankewitz and four others—Marlin Lewis, Christina Menchaca, Teena Topping, and Billy Brown—became stranded in Modesto, CA, on their way back to Fresno, stole Theresa Graybeal’s car and kidnapped her, then one of them shot her in the head.
Stankewitz would later be sentenced to death in multiple trials, the most recent in 1993, and is believed to be the longest-serving inmate on San Quentin Prison’s Death Row.
Fresno DA Smittcamp recommended in 2019 that the Superior Court re-sentence Stankewitz to life without the possibility of parole.
Defense attorney Alexandra Cock says there was information and mitigating evidence her team wanted to present at a 2019 hearing that the judge did not allow.
“There was evidence we wanted to present in his defense … showing the gun was not the murder weapon, therefore he couldn’t be guilty of kidnapping and murder,” Cock said.
“We ask for your intervention in the matter of Douglas Stankewitz,” his legal team writes. ”Even though no staff member of yours or current police employee was involved with framing Mr. Stankewitz for murder in 1978, you have the power to make this right as your office still has jurisdiction over the case.”
According to Brown’s testimony in court, giving what is now known to be false testimony, he witnessed Stankewitz raise a gun and shoot Graybeal in the back of her head.
Brown’s testimony doesn’t align with a forensic pathologist who determined the bullet that entered near Graybeal’s right ear lobe, traveled at a 10-degree upward angle, and exited her skull behind her left ear.
Cock said the importance of the trajectory of the bullet, according to expert Roger Clark, is that it demonstrates that the victim was shot by a short person.
“In other words, based on their theory of the case, which is that she was shot on the street corner, it couldn’t have been Chief because he is a lot taller than her,” Cock said.
Chief is 6-foot-1 and was at the time. Graybeal was 5-foot-3 although, in the original trial, prosecutors had witnesses testify that she was 5-foot-7.
“What made it worse is they had her dad come in and say she was 5-foot-7,” Cock said. “They lied about her height.”
She said prosecutors also had one of the officers testify that Graybeal was 5-foot-7.
The letter also states that documents from Fresno agencies show the alleged murder weapon was planted.
“As stated by Roger Clark, Police Practices Expert, under penalty of perjury, the physical evidence in the case shows our client’s innocence and does not match the testimony of the trial witnesses,” the letter said. “Outrageous law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct by Fresno officials have kept him incarcerated on Death Row for almost 44 years. It is past time for you to dismiss the case against him.”
The truth is that, without the misconduct, the case against him was never provable beyond a reasonable doubt. It was a vendetta by police who conspired to convict Stankewitz and have him executed. His family’s criminal activity, including that against law enforcement, made him a target.
According to the letter, Stankewitz has had five death dates and spent 20 years in solitary confinement. He has been subjected to the horrors of prison life. He suffers from a variety of physical maladies, including long having COVID-19.
“If nothing else, he should be released on humanitarian grounds,” the attorneys write.
“We understand that the implications of our allegations are difficult to accept for the county’s top law enforcement officer. We ask you to put those feelings aside and meet with us so that we can freely present to you the merits of our position and ultimately advocate for Douglas’s eligibility for parole, if not total exoneration in the tragic murder of Ms. Graybeal,” defense attorneys wrote.
To date, the Fresno DA’s office has not responded to the letter and could not be reached for comment.