California’s longest serving death row inmate will no longer be slated for execution, if a Monday ruling by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals stands. According to the Los Angeles Times, the appellate court ruled that Doug Stankewitz, convicted of murder in 1978, was improperly represented by his lawyers during the sentencing phase of his trial. The majority held that the incompetence was so gross as to justify vacating the death penalty sentence entirely:
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 six, Stankewitz already was severely emotionally damaged, the court said. Judge Raymond C. Fisher, writing for the court, said the jury might have opted for a life sentence had it learned of Stankewitz’s life story and his heavy use of drugs in the hours before the murder.
Cases like Stankewitz’s, where prisoners convicted of the death penalty languish in prison for dozens of years in fear of their impending death, are sadly common. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the average gap between sentencing and execution increased from roughly 6 years in 1984 to roughly 15 years in 2010. The reason for this increase in wait times appears to be a more extensive appellate process, but the byproduct of these reforms has been to increase the psychological suffering of inmates who have no way of knowing when they are going to be killed. The Center notes that several judges and justices have questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty on these grounds — former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that “a punishment of death after significant delay is ‘so totally without penological justification that it results in the gratuitous infliction of suffering.’”
For this and other reasons, Stankewitz’s state of California is voting this November on a ballot initiative to abolish the death penalty. The abolitionist side is narrowing the polls as former proponents of the state’s death penalty change their minds and evidence suggests the punishment is busting the state’s budget. More broadly, the American death penalty sentences innocent people to die, is shot through with racial bias, and has not been shown to function as an effective deterrent.