Help Us Free A Wrongfully Convicted Man
On their way back to Fresno after having their borrowed car taken by the police, on the night of February 8, 1978, Chief and four others (Marlin Lewis, Christina Menchaca, Teena Topping, and Billy Brown) became stranded in Modesto, CA. The prosecution story states that the group was unable to hitch a ride and so instead decided to take a car.
Although there are conflicting stories about exactly what happened, they saw a young woman, later identified as the victim Theresea Graybeal, outside a K-Mart store, Topping forced her into her vehicle, and drove off toward Fresno with the rest of the group.
After buying and shooting up heroin in Fresno Chinatown, some of the group then drove to Vine Avenue and 10th street in Calwa. According to Billy Brown’s testimony in court, giving what is now known to be false testimony, it was in Calwa where he witnessed Stankewitz raise a gun and shoot Graybeal in the back of her head.
Later that evening, 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.
Marlin Lewis: The suspected shooter
Chief when he was arrested. He was 19 years old at the time.
First Trial in 1978
Chief was sentenced to death twice – once in 1978 and again in 1983.
For both trials, his defense lawyers assumed Chief was guilty and acted in accordance with that belief. During the guilty phase of the first trial, Chief's appointed public defender pursued a diminished capacity defense, arguing to the court that he was high on heroine during the time of the murder.
A thorough review of the trial counsel's files show that no investigation was done to examine the evidence and that no investigators or experts were hired in preparation of trial.
Second Trial in 1983
The failure of Chief's lawyers to properly investigate the case carried over to Chief's second trial. In a 1995 declaration by Hugh Goodwin, his appointed attorney for the second trial, Goodwin listed 20 things he failed to do as Chief's attorney.
Among them included:
- Not consulting with or collecting files from any of Stankewitz’s previous attorneys (both trial and appellate)
- Not interviewing or collecting files about Chief’s family members, foster parents, or teachers to learn about his background and upbringing
- And most importantly, Goodwin failed to investigate and interview the testifying witness and main individual he was attempting to discredit: Billy Brown.
Before Chief's current pro bono team of lawyers took over the case in 2016, Chief had a total of 18 court-appointed attorneys on his case – none of which ever investigated factual innocence.
Fresno Superior Court 2017-19
From 2017 to 2019, more than once, Chief and his legal team attempted to have his case dismissed, or at least be granted a new trial. A number of motions were filed in Fresno County Superior Court moving to dismiss Chief's case documented many miscarriages of justice, such as: the failure to preserve evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, and the discovery of evidence showing that the same gun was not used in both the Meras crimes and the Graybeal murder. It wasn’t until 2020, that the defense discovered that the alleged murder weapon was in the custody of the lead homicide detective of the Fresno Sheriff's Department beginning five years prior to the murder through the day of the murder.
In May 2019, the DA moved to reduce Chief's sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole. Judge Arlan Harrell accepted the DA's request, despite defense motions to provide a sentencing memorandum. The Judge claimed that he did not have the discretion to give any sentence other than life without the possibility of parole as directed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
A legal brief was submitted last year by Chief's sentencing appeal lawyer, Elizabeth Campbell, argues that a number of violations of Chief's constitutional rights occurred while in the Fresno courts from 2017-19.
The Respondent's (Attorney General) brief was submitted to the court, agreeing that Judge Harrell was mistaken in saying he did not have discretion to give a different sentence. The Attorney General stated that Chief is entitled to a complete resentencing, including a review of the sentences for special circumstances and gun enhancement. Elizabeth Campbell is currently writing a Reply Brief, arguing that Chief is entitled to a new trial.
Chief’s LWOP sentence is on appeal to the CA 5 th District Court of Appeal. His appointed lawyer, Elizabeth Campbell has filed several briefs on his behalf. The case was fully briefed as of September, 2021 and oral argument has been waived. The CA Attorney General has conceded that he is entitled to full resentencing, including a review of the sentences for special circumstances and gun enhancement. Chief’s lawyers will be able to present mitigating evidence which should mean a lower sentence. There have been many changes in sentencing law, which work to his benefit.
Additionally, a writ of habeas corpus was submitted October 2, 2020, with a total of 19 claims for why Chief's imprisonment is unlawful. Chief's legal team filed the Petition for Writ of Habeas first in the 5th District, then in Fresno County Superior Court (FCSC). Although the habeas petition was filed in FCSC in January, 2021, there have been nothing but delays and no decision by the court. On March 29, 2022, FCSC gave itself an additional 6 months to rule. Given that delay and the judge’s continued abuse of his discretion, the team filed a Petition for Writ of Mandate with the 5 th District Court on May 19, 2022. On May 26, the 5 th District issued an order directing the CA Attorney General to respond within 30 days. Chief’s team will then have 20 days to reply.
As of June 29, 2020, the Appellate court Panel from the CA 5th District Court of Appeal has granted Chief a re-sentencing on his case and remanded it back to the lower court. The court statedthat the trial court (Judge Harrell) erred in assuming he lacked discretion in providing Chief with a different sentence. The court agreed with the Attorney General, asserting that remand for resentencing is required.
Members of the legal team file their first motion to dismiss at the Fresno Courthouse in early 2017.