By David M. Greenwald
Fresno, CA – Attorneys for Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz believe that he was wrongly convicted of murder in 1978, and has now served nearly 46 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Tony Serra, Curtis Briggs, Marshall Hammons and others have been fighting to get him a new trial and now Judge Arlan Harrell, of Fresno County, has granted him an evidentiary hearing.
In a one-page order, Judge Harrell wrote that “the Court finds that ‘there is a reasonable likelihood that [Petitioner] may be entitled to relief.’”
The matter is set for a status conference on October 27.
The Vanguard spoke to Curtis Briggs, one of the lead attorneys in the case along with the legendary Tony Serra.
He explained an evidentiary hearing “is a space and time that opens up in front of the judge where he can actually give or determine whether something has value as evidence.”
It is basically a bench trial where the judge will then determine whether the new evidence is sufficient to warrant a new trial.
Briggs continued, saying “an evidentiary hearing literally opens up a seat on the witness stand and gives us the power to bring witnesses and make them answer questions in front of the judge to explain the documentation, the evidence, and bring their own testimony so that the judge can actually consider this stuff.”
There are two pieces of key evidence that Briggs believes they “can and will prevail on.”
The first is ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) by the trial counsel. He said while there was serious prosecutorial misconduct, “we believe that an even semi-diligent defense attorney would have immediately noticed this at the trial court level. And we think that that’s the most realistic way we can prevail.”
Second is that they want the judge to look at the evidence that the gun was planted, that the original prosecutor had lied to the court, and was attempting to frame Stankewitz.
Briggs thinks that might be a tougher sell: “I think politically, to the extent the judge is influenced by pressure politics or local politics, I think IAC is the most viable chance we have.”
Briggs said, “I certainly believe there was enough evidence that it could have been misconduct, that it could have and should have been pursued at trial by defense counsel, but defense counsel didn’t do their job and discover that.”
Their goal is to get him a new trial. That resets the burden and puts it back on the DA’s office.
Moreover, Briggs does not believe they can retry Stankewitz at that point given the amount of time that has lapsed and the age of the witnesses from the original trial.
“Nobody remembers anything. There’s documents missing. There’s a substantial proof of misconduct, so they can’t really rely on trial transcripts because there was a whole ton of things that weren’t brought to light at that point,” he explained.
The original trial prosecutor was James Ardaiz.
“James Ardaiz is the lead prosecutor in the first trial who lied to the court, tried to frame the chief originally, and that trial was overturned. And Ardaiz went on to become the presiding judge of the fifth Appellate District and became this powerful judge, powerful force in Fresno,” Briggs explained.
Briggs explained that they moved for a gag order on Ardaiz when they came onto the case.
Briggs noted that Ardaiz got the death penalty reinstated and, in fact, Briggs said they believe that Stankewitz was the first death penalty prosecution after the death penalty was legalized again in California.
“You have this really aggressive prosecutor, first death prosecution, and he does everything,” Briggs explained. “He’s dirty as hell. All the misconduct basically happens on his watch, gets his conviction.”
As explained by Briggs, the motion was brought in response to Ardaiz’s statement to the Bee defending the initial conviction of Stankewitz.
The article from 2016, quoted Ardaiz as saying that he had no doubt that Stankewitz killed the victim.
He said, “Doug Stankewitz did what I convicted him of doing—a cold-blooded, premeditated murder.”
In the motion, Briggs charged, “Ardaiz poses an ongoing threat to Stankewitz’s fair trial rights. Ardaiz’s conduct, if unrestrained, jeopardizes the public’s confidence in the judiciary; Ardaiz’s conduct threatens the autonomy of this Court; all of which are against fundamental concepts of an accused’s fair trial rights and due process in violation of the California and United States Constitutions.”
Briggs added, “Instead of expressing any concern for whether he was misled or not, thereby having taken a part in the wrongful conviction of Chief, Ardaiz essentially told the readers of the Fresno Bee that no matter what a witness says in this matter, and no matter how the evidence unfolds under the adversarial test, Chief should remain on Death Row because Ardaiz said so.”