BOLINAS – Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz got up Wednesday in the early morning darkness. That’s when he meditates and exercises and reads. He turned on the television and caught the Channel 7 news. It was around 5:30. And he heard.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom planned to declare a moratorium on the death penalty that day, dismantle the death chamber. Because capital punishment, Newsom said, is immoral and expensive. Kills the innocent along with the guilty. Targets the black, the brown, the poor.
“I just thought, ‘It’s about time, about time someone stepped up who had the power and authority to do so,’” Stankewitz said.
He was the first person to land on California’s death row after capital punishment was reinstated in 1978. He was 20 then. He will be 61 in May.
He is still on death row, sentenced for the kidnapping and murder of Theresa Graybeal, 22, who had gone to the store for a bag of dog food. His case is making its arduous way through the courts. His next hearing is Friday in Fresno.
As the news about Newsom rippled through San Quentin, Stankewitz said in a telephone interview Thursday, there were no celebrations, no cheers among the 737 condemned men on the largest death row in the United States.
“Some have talked about it,” Stankewitz said. “Other ones, I guess, feel numbed. They don’t believe what’s happening. ... It’s like when people get sentenced to death. They get numb for a week or two. Reality hasn’t set in.”
No matter how you feel about capital punishment, it is hard to argue that the system is working as originally planned – 13 years have passed since California administered a lethal injection in its seafoam green death chamber, with its rows of seats for those who wish to watch.
Stankewitz, a member of the Big Sandy Rancheria of Mono Indians, could be the poster child for the death penalty debate in California.
His defense team insists he is innocent. Capital punishment supporters believe he should have been dead a long time ago.
And Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at UC Berkeley, points to the Stankewitz case as proof of California’s “irrational” system and its voters’ doubts about the ultimate sanction. The Golden State, he says, has “an honorary death penalty.” And that is no accident.
“If what you have is profound ambivalence and conflict, then you’re going to have a system that is pushed for good reason toward an operation which is more symbolic than actual,” Zimring said. “That’s a wonderful political advantage for a governor who wants to do the right thing but is worried about paying the price.”
On Feb. 8, 1978, Stankewitz and three friends were stranded in Modesto, looking for a way to get back to Fresno. Hitchhiking didn’t work, so they walked to a nearby Kmart, looking for a car to steal. That’s when they saw Graybeal, a newlywed, walking to her car.
They followed her, and when she opened the door, Teena Topping pushed her inside and entered the car. Stankewitz, who was 19 at the time, Marlin Lewis, and 14-year-old Billy Brown followed suit. When they got to Fresno, they stopped at a seedy hotel to shoot up. Then they headed to a small town called Calwa to score more drugs, according to court documents.
That’s where Graybeal was shot in the head. Brown testified that Stankewitz pulled the trigger. But 15 years later, he recanted. In a four-page declaration, he said he had been coerced by the Fresno district attorney, told that he would be charged with murder if he did not testify.
“I did not at any time see Doug Stankewitz holding a gun,” Brown declared. “I did not see who pulled the trigger.”
Stankewitz said Thursday that he never went to Calwa, where Graybeal was killed. Instead, he said, he wandered Fresno’s Chinatown in a stoned haze. “You just walk,” he said. “Your brain ain’t thinking.”
Stankewitz went to trial in July 1978. That October he was sentenced to die, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. One day later, he arrived at San Quentin.
“I haven’t been on grass for (more than 40) years,” he said Thursday. “No grass, no mud, no dirt. Just steel and cement you’re walking on, looking at.”
Stankewitz’s first conviction was thrown out in 1982. He was retried in 1983, convicted again and sentenced to death again. In 2012, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out Stankewitz’s death sentence and ordered he either be given life in prison without the possibility of parole or be tried again to determine his punishment.
That trial is scheduled for April.
Curtis L. Briggs, one of Stankewitz’s attorneys, said that since his current legal team took over in 2016, new evidence has come to light that would show the stocky Mono Indian with black hair cascading down his back was framed. Other evidence – including blood samples – that could help prove his innocence has disappeared, according to his lawyers.
They don’t just want a new sentencing trial; they want the case against Stankewitz to be dismissed or for him to be given a new trial.
The Fresno district attorney’s office declined to comment on the case and rebuked Stankewitz’s legal team for talking outside of court in a way that could prejudice the proceeding.
“A failure of the defense team to abide by the law does not excuse my office’s obligation to comply with it,” said Steve E. Wright, assistant district attorney for Fresno County.
Over the years, Wayne Graybeal, Theresa’s father-in-law, largely spoke for the family. He died of bladder cancer in 2017.
But in a 2012 interview, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that Stankewitz “was a bad guy and I don’t know why he’s alive. I wish they would just do what they have to do to him ... my daughter-in-law didn’t deserve what happened to her. She was a nice girl. That man needs to die.”
Stankewitz gets two 15-minute phone calls a day. He uses them to talk to Colleen Hicks, whom he has known for the last decade and loved for the last seven years. She is 71, Cherokee and Lakota, the retired executive director of the Museum of the American Indian in Novato.
First they pray, repeating two benedictions Hicks wrote on Stankewitz’s behalf. The prayers begin and end the same way, with a call to the Great Spirit and a heartfelt aho, a Plains Indian’s way of saying amen.
One prayer is thanksgiving. The other is all appeal: “Great Spirit, unravel the web of lies and framed evidence that has kept Chief wrongfully imprisoned and let the truth of his innocence shine light on his path to freedom now, aho.”
Ten years ago, Father John J. “Jack” O’Neill was a pastor of St. Mary Magdalene in Bolinas, where Hicks plays piano and is choir director. He had spent 12 years as a chaplain at San Quentin and asked her if she would write to Stankewitz, who was in isolation when O’Neill met him.
They corresponded for three years before Hicks visited San Quentin on Feb. 11, 2012, 34 years after Graybeal’s death.
“I had prepared myself to see someone who was really defeated and needed a lot of just sympathy,” Hicks said. “But there was this giant.” She paused, laughed. “He just looked like a warrior to me. His eyes were clear and intelligent, alert. I couldn’t believe it.”
They talked about his case, and when the visit ended, she asked him, “’Are you glad I came?’ And he said, ‘When can you come back?’ And so that started this slow process.”
When Stankewitz is freed – she does not say “if” – they plan for him to live with her in Bolinas, in her high-beamed old-growth redwood home on a leafy acre near Point Reyes National Seashore. She believes that nature will be an antidote to incarceration.
Stankewitz, Hicks and his attorneys worry that the moratorium could complicate his bid for freedom, that the Fresno district attorney’s office might just switch course and agree that he should be imprisoned for life without the possibility of parole.
Complications or no, Stankewitz said, Newsom’s decision was the right one.
“I talked to other prisoners,” he said. “They feel the same way I feel about it. ... It ain’t no rich people up here, no big-name family people up here ...
“To be sentenced to death and waiting 20, 25, 30, 40 years and they still carry it out?” he said. “That’s cruel.”