Thursday, February 10, 2005

People v. Stankewitz (Cal. Ct. App. - February 9, 2005)

Hmmm. Stankewitz and Lewis are both undeniably drunk. They're speeding along, three sheets to the wind, when they run a stop sign and smash into another car, killing the victim. Lewis is thrown from the car, and Stankewitz runs from the car to call for help (and then hide from the police). Someone's clearly going to be charged with -- at a minimum -- gross vehicular manslaughter, and, if convicted, spend a ton of time in prison. The critical question, of course, is: Which one? Stankewitz or Lewis? Which one was driving, and which one was the passenger? On that issue, a ton of prison time -- as it turns out, 30 years to life -- hangs in the balance.

The police obviously know that this is the critical issue. And, on this issue, there are no (living) witnesses other than Sankewitz and Lewis, each of whom will obviously want to point the finger at the other as the driver. Looks like a job for "CSI: Madera County" (!), right? The police will see whose blood is on the driver's seat and whose blood is on the passenger's side. They'll take hair samples. They'll take prints. They'll see where the seat is positioned (up front, for the smaller Lewis, or further back, for Stankewitz). They'll see which seat belts were engaged at the time of the accident, since Lewis probably wasn't wearing one (since she was ejected). They'll see how the seats lean. The physical evidence will solve the case. It'll show who's the driver. Right?

Uh, no. How about this instead: The police will take a couple of pictures of the accident, do utterly nothing to obtain any real evidence from the vehicle, let the smashed car rot in the elements of an outside junkyard for two months, and then sell the car to a dismantler, who (inter alia) will cut off the entire front end of the car and throw the severed vehicle (with other choice alterations) on top of another junked car. In other words, the police will take sufficient care of the car just enough to make sure that there's absolutely no physical evidence left that might help to either convict -- or acquit -- Stankewitz.

It's not like this is a open-and-shut case. It takes the state three trials to finally convict Stankewitz; the first jury hangs, the second jury's verdict gets tossed for ineffective assistance, and it's only the third time that's a charm (for the State, anyway -- not Stankewitz). Justice Wiseman upholds this conviction, holding that the failure to properly preserve the car wasn't reversible error.

I'm admittedly conflicted about this case. Some of what Justice Wiseman says makes sense; by contrast, some of what she says -- particularly her claim that there's no real proof that examination of the car might possibly have helped the defense -- seems incredibly weak. All I know is that the state-controlled handling of the evidence in this case leaves me far from confident that justice was done to Mr. Stankewitz. Yeah, he might well be guilty. But, then again, maybe he wasn't. The only thing I know for sure is that what the police did makes it impossible for us to be confident in the result. And that's a problem. A big one.