A federal appeals court Monday overturned the death sentence of California's longest-serving death row inmate on the grounds that his defense lawyer failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence during the penalty phase of his murder trial.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided 2-1 that Douglas R. Stankewitz, convicted of murdering Theresa Greybeal in Fresno in 1978, should be re-sentenced to life without possibility of parole unless prosecutors retry the penalty phase of his murder case.
Death penalty trials are divided into two parts. The jury first decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If guilt is established, the jury then decides whether to recommend a death sentence or life without parole.
The 9th Circuit majority said Stankewitz's lawyer presented only a “paltry” amount of evidence in trying to persuade jurors against a death sentence, ignoring extensive documentation of the defendant's “deprived and abusive upbringing,” potential mental illness, long history of substance abuse and use of drugs leading up to the murder.
Stankewitz was born into a filthy, poverty-stricken home without running water or electricity to an intellectually impaired alcoholic mother and an abusive, alcoholic father, the court said. By the age of 6, Stankewitz already was severely emotionally damaged, the court said.