Surviving Injustice

Native American drummers at a prayer circle for Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz. Photo by Peter Maiden
Native American drummers at a prayer circle for Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz. Photo by Peter Maiden

Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz, the Monache man from Big Sandy Rancheria (Fresno County), has never wavered in his fight for freedom. Sentenced to death in October 1978, Stankewitz has lived through five scheduled dates of execution.

He has survived and endured 46 years of wrongful incarceration. Stankewitz is the longest serving person on death row in California history.

In 2019, the Fresno District Attorney dropped the death penalty and Stankewitz was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. At present, he is still housed on Death Row. In addition to his habeas proceeding, his resentencing is pending before the Fresno Superior Court.

Native American drummers at a prayer circle for Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz. Photo by Peter Maiden
Native American drummers at a prayer circle for Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz. Photo by Peter Maiden Courthouse on Jan. 29. They were supporting Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz, who was in a hearing seeking to be released after 45 years on death row. Photo by Peter Maiden

Steadfast in his bid for freedom, Stankewitz and his legal team won an opportunity for an evidentiary hearing—an opportunity to present evidence they hope will lead to Stankewitz’s freedom. This evidentiary hearing alone was a big win and the summation of a seven-year legal struggle by Stankewitz’s legal team.

Stankewitz’s legal team is mostly pro bono by legendary San Francisco civil rights attorney J. Tony Serra, Bay Area attorneys Curtis L. Briggs and Marshall Hammons, and attorney Alexandra Cock of Washington State, who is working as a paralegal on the case.

The evidentiary hearing was granted by Fresno County Superior Court Judge Arlan L. Harrell, who determined there was enough new evidence to warrant the hearing, a notable divergence from Harrell’s record of upholding the Stankewitz conviction, flagging a viable opportunity for a new defense by Stankewitz’s legal team.

In 1978, 19-year-old Douglas Stankewitz, severely abused as a child and a former foster youth who had survived years of horrific trauma, was convicted of capital murder in a rushed trial and without proper defense, which his legal team detailed during the seven-day evidentiary hearing in January 2024.

His co-defendants were given a change of venue, pleaded guilty to lesser crimes and served relatively short sentences. At the hearing, new evidence regarding the validity of the supposed murder weapon having been the gun found in the victim’s vehicle was introduced.

The vehicle was mishandled or not secured by the Fresno Police Department before returning it to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, which, in turn, returned it to the victim’s family within two days of the crime. The return of the car predated Stankewitz’s trial attorney being assigned to the case. So his counsel could not inspect the vehicle or its contents.

David Álvarez burns sage as part of a prayer circle for Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz in front of the Fresno County Courthouse on Jan. 29. Photo by Peter Maiden
David Álvarez burns sage as part of a prayer circle for Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz in front of the Fresno County Courthouse on Jan. 29. Photo by Peter Maiden

Additional evidence brought forward was the discrepancy in the evidence collection documentation regarding the supposed murder weapon.

Attorney Hammons stated, “After close to five decades, Chief has finally had a fair hearing where the issues underlying his case, including police, prosecutorial and defense misconduct, have come to light in front of someone who has the power to overturn his conviction. I’m confident we will see Chief released soon.”

During the evidentiary hearing, Stankewitz’s legal team called 20 witnesses and moved more than 20 exhibits into evidence. The prosecution did not call any witnesses, and aside from questioning the witnesses called by the defense did not counter the planted gun theory. Nor did the DA counter the testimony regarding ineffective assistance of counsel or the failure of the court or the Sheriff’s Office to secure exhibits and evidence, creating an opportunity for most anyone to access them.

Information unearthed during the evidentiary hearing confirmed that former Sheriff Margaret Mims and the DA from Stankewitz’s first trial, James Ardaiz, who went on to become an associate justice of the Fifth District Court of Appeals, did in fact exchange the case file although Mims testified that she did not have access to the case file or share it with Ardaiz. However, a Sheriff’s Office captain testified that he gave Mims the file and that she had it for a significant period of time.

In addition, text messages between Mims and Ardaiz indicated that the two were on a first name basis as recently as 2021. Brought forward was confirmation that there was indeed a meeting between the previously assigned DA, the DA investigator and the head of the Sheriff’s Office crime lab wherein they discussed testing the supposed murder weapon and the reasons it was not tested.

Under the law, witnesses under subpoena are forbidden to speak with one another. Yet Ardaiz was found to have contacted the former DA, Warren Robinson, from the second Stankewitz trial in an attempt to review or reinforce details of the case a week and a half ahead of the evidentiary hearing.

On the final day of the hearing, Judge Harrell ordered the DA to bring all their paper files for review and, as a result, it was found that the DA had lied when saying that the entire file before 2017 had been lost as documents reviewed by both parties revealed case files going back to 1978.

Attorney Briggs stated that “the evidentiary hearing went well, and we were able to bring clarity to how unfair Chief’s 1983 trial was. As defense attorneys, it is our job to hold the prosecution accountable.

“Had Chief’s trial attorney done his job, he would have discovered the prosecutorial misconduct and realized Chief was being framed.”

Stankewitz is one of many Native American men, women and two-spirit relatives behind bars. Native Americans are overrepresented in state and federal prisons by more than four times higher than the state and federal prison incarceration rate of white people.

These trends are further exacerbated in Fresno County where racially disparate incarceration rates stand above national averages. Indigenous people in California have survived three waves of colonization and ongoing attempts of culture erasure and genocide.

It wasn’t until 1978, the year of Stankewitz’s arrest and incarceration, that Indigenous peoples won back their right to openly practice their cultural lifeways through the Native American Religious Freedom Act.

Native Americans at a prayer circle for Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz on Jan. 29. Photo by Peter Maiden
Native Americans at a prayer circle for Douglas “Chief” Stankewitz on Jan. 29. Photo by Peter Maiden

Indigenous peoples have long survived forced confinement—removal from ancestral homelands, internment in forts or reservations, forced removal from families and communities through boarding schools, mental institutions, jails and prisons as a means of exercising dominance, dominion and forced assimilation into Western culture.

These systemic and sociopolitical harms have resulted in disproportionate health and social inequities such as higher rates of incarceration and poor health outcomes for Native American people.

Stankewitz’s relative Herbert N. Sample was the primary plaintiff in Sample v. Borg, a powerful win protecting religious freedoms for incarcerated Indigenous people in California. Despite these protections, Stankewitz has spent 18 years of his incarceration in solitary confinement in part as a result of wearing his hair long, a Native American cultural/spiritual custom.

Jeanette Sample, daughter of Herbert N. Sample and cousin of Stankewitz, has been in touch with Stankewitz and supported him throughout his incarceration. Jeanette carried her father’s drum into the courtroom, and songs were drummed from it during the prayer gathering ahead of the January evidentiary hearing.

Other members of the Stankewitz family also attended court and the prayer circle. The prayer was led by a local Yaqui elder, David Alvarez Sr., and songs were offered by local native drummers. Louwegie Rede, a Pomo and Yuki dancer and Indigenous justice reentry coordinator, offered traditional prayer songs with his clapping stick.

Also in attendance was a Central Valley AIM (American Indian Movement) leader, Elder Laura Wass, who is an expert on Native American historical trauma.

During the prayer gathering, Stankewitz’s legal team read this statement from him: “I’m thankful for all the supporters, prayers, the sweat and communications from the community helping me achieve my freedom. I’m thankful to this court for giving us the opportunity to have this hearing to let the truth come to light. With all the support and prayers, I am looking forward to being free soon. In freedom, Chief.”

While Stankewitz has returned to San Quentin, his legal team continues their effort. The judge, by his discretion, ordered the legal team to put their closing arguments in writing, with the final brief due on May 31, after which point Judge Harrell will make a decision regarding the outcome of the evidentiary hearing. His decision will be whether to grant Stankewitz’s habeas corpus petition and grant him a new trial or dismiss the case.


  • Ashley Crystal Rojas

    Ashley Crystal Rojas (she/ella) is a 5th gen Fresnan born in a small house on Shields and Pacific. She studied community based public health at San Francisco State University, a 2023 Soros Justice Fellow and is the Policy Director for Indigenous Justice.

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1 month ago

Great article! -smileyG

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