Federal Court Overturns Sentence of California’s Longest Serving Death Row Inmate

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Oct 30, 2012

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The fate of California’s longest serving death row inmate was decided by a federal appeals court on Monday.  Douglas Ray Stankewitz had his death sentence set aside after the court found one of his attorneys did not investigate the circumstances leading to his commission of murder. Stankewitz was one of the first inmates sentenced to death since California reinstated the penalty, and, for now, he will avoid the fate he has faced for over 30 years.

Attorney Error Leads Court To Set Aside Death Sentence

Mr. Stankewitz has been on death row in California since 1978, when he was convicted for the kidnapping and murder of Theresea Greybeal. The Federal Ninth Circuit upheld an order vacating his sentence because one of Stankewitz’s attorneys failed to argue that a history of child abuse and a longtime period of substance abuse contributed to the murder.  Saying that the attorney’s decision to not investigate the circumstances of the murder was not justifiable on any tactical grounds, the Court found that the error was enough of a failure to set aside the judgment.

As a result of the court’s ruling, California officials have 90 days to retry the capital phase, or to commute the sentence to life without parole. 

California Set To Vote On Banning Death Penalty

This ruling comes as California prepares to vote on a ballot initiative seeking to once again ban the penalty in the state.  Free Advice published a blog earlier about this issue that points out arguments against the death penalty are shifting to costs.  Executing a convicted inmate has become increasingly expensive, and groups that historically support the punishment in theory have begun to waver in their commitment to it. 

Douglas Ray Stankewitz has avoided execution for now, and possibly forever as California has yet to decide it if will attempt to retry a capital punishment phase from 1978.  On the surface, the decision seems fair: the death sentence, whether reasonable or not, is an extreme punishment.  Anyone facing it deserves the best defense, and the failure of an attorney should not compromise the punishment phase.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has set a precedent that a defendant facing the most serious of punishments in California is owed the best efforts by his or her attorney to ensure all the facts and circumstances are properly considered before a decision is made.  If the death penalty is not banned in the November election, defendants facing it are guaranteed to get a thorough review before it is administered. 

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