Chief Stankewitz Moves a Step Closer to Freedom with Judge’s Order

Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz, 60, in a Fresno Court and waiting for the Attorney General’s response on if he will be retried or released after 43 years in prison.

By Robert J. Hansen

Almost two weeks ago, a California judge ordered the state of California and the Attorney General’s Office to show cause why the murder conviction of the inmate who has served 43 years of a life sentence should not be overturned, and the inmate therefore released.

According to court documents, Superior Court Judge Arlan Harrell has ordered the California Attorney General to show why the Court should not grant Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz the relief requested in his petition for writ of habeas corpus.

Essentially, Judge Harrell has ordered that the state either prove that Stankewitz was not wrongly convicted and retry the 44-year-old murder case or release him.

In 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.

They stole a young woman named Theresa Graybeal’s car and kidnapped her. Tragically, the plan spiraled out of control and one of them shot Graybeal in the head.

While in or near Graybeal’s vehicle, Stankewitz, Menchaca, Topping, and Lewis were arrested by Fresno police. Stankewitz was then accused of kidnapping, robbing, and then murdering Theresa Graybeal.

“Chief”, now 60, would later be sentenced to death in multiple trials and is believed to be at one time the longest-serving inmate on San Quentin Prison’s Death Row.

He was resentenced to life without parole in 2019.

A legal team of pro bono attorneys, Alexandra Cock, J. Tony Serra, Marshall Hammons, and Curtis Briggs have been working on Chief’s case for almost eight years.

Cock said it has taken her and her team seven and half years to get the Fresno Superior Court to recognize that it has shown that Stankewitz was wrongfully convicted.

“We have made the case in the habeas that he was framed and railroaded for a murder that he did not commit,” Cock said.

It is now up to the State to decide whether they are going to respond within 30 days.

“The Judge has not only seen the pervasive lies that have invaded every aspect of his case but have furthered the interests of justice by granting the order,” Marshall Hammons said via email.

Hammons says now the prosecution must answer some very tough questions about law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct that continues to this very day.

“Chief has never had the real evidence of his innocence presented in over 44 years, and this would be the first time the truth comes out,” Hammons said.

Curtis Briggs, a trial attorney who secured an acquittal for Max Harris who was charged with 36 counts of manslaughter in the Oakland Ghost Ship Fire of 2016, is skeptical of receiving a fair trial in the Fresno court.

“We are grateful that we have an opportunity to show ‘Chief’ is innocent,” Briggs said. “Their treatment of ‘Chief’ in light of a landslide of exonerating evidence is appalling and wreaks of collusion and misconduct.”

Briggs volunteered thousands of hours and the team spent a lot of its own money into getting to this point, so they have to pick our battles wisely.

Briggs said that if the team had more resources, it would move to disqualify the district attorney’s office and the Fresno trial courts.

Chief has proclaimed his innocence for over 44 years and asked his many lawyers throughout the years to look at the evidence.

In 39 years, this was the first legal team to do so. Their experts immediately told the team that the facts presented at the 1978 trial were inconsistent with the physical evidence.

Briggs is however skeptical that the Fresno trial court will give “Chief” a fair hearing.

“If they do give him a fair hearing, it will be the first time in 44 years,” Briggs said. “Thankfully the appellate courts have sided with ‘Chief’ time and time again.”

Cock said It is difficult for her to imagine a more egregious case of misconduct that has been, and “still is being, committed by the State and the Fresno authorities.”

“We will continue to persevere until our client is freed from incarceration and living a new life outside,” Cock said.

The Attorney General’s Office was not available for comment and has about two more weeks to respond.

If the AG’s Office declines to file a return and defers the matter to the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, another agency or other counsel, the AG’s Office is directed to advise this court of its deferral decision, according to court records.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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