Stankewitz v. Wong

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: 10-29-2012
  • Case #: 10-99001
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Fisher for the Court; Circuit Judge Bybee; Dissent by Circuit Judge O'Scannlian
  • Full Text Opinion

The district court does not err in granting a petition for writ of habeas corpus where the state fails to rebut the petitioner’s allegations that his counsel failed to investigate and present readily available mitigation evidence that, if true, would establish that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.

Douglas Stankewitz’s murder conviction was initially reversed based on a conflict of interest with his public defender, and he was appointed private counsel. After being convicted and again sentenced to death, Stankewitz filed a habeas petition in federal court. He claimed, among other things, ineffective assistance of counsel during the penalty phase of his trial. The district court found the record presented support of mitigating evidence, and denied the state’s motion for reconsideration. The state’s present appeal challenged both the district court’s findings of fact and the conclusion that Stankewitz’s attorney rendered ineffective assistance. Reviewing de novo, the Court held that the record adequately supported each of the district court’s findings, and the district court did not clearly err by concluding that Stankewitz was severely damaged by his upbringing. In addition, Stankewitz was able to meet the constitutional standards set forth in Strickland v. Washington, showing both that his attorney performed deficiently and that such performance prejudiced him. His attorney had no tactical basis for ignoring the state’s substantial aggravating evidence, even though there was an abundance of classic mitigation evidence available. Considering both the potential aggravating impact and potential mitigating impact of the proffered evidence, the Court determined that the record contained substantial mitigating evidence that could have been presented with little or no risk of further aggravating the negative information that the jury already knew. Stankewitz’s attorney’s “paltry penalty phase presentation,” along with the jury’s difficulty in reaching a verdict, led the Court to hold that the district court was correct in concluding that Stankewitz’s attorney’s failures prejudiced Stankewitz before the jury. AFFIRMED.

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