LOS ANGELES -- A federal court overturned the death sentence for California's longest-serving death row inmate Monday on the grounds that his defense lawyer did an inadequate job.

A 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel decided 2-1 that Douglas Stankewitz should be resentenced to life without possibility of parole unless prosecutors retry the penalty phase of his case, according to the Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/Ucaqqd).

Stankewitz was convicted in the 1978 murder of Theresa Greybeal in Fresno.

A majority of the 9th Circuit panel said his lawyer presented a "paltry" amount of evidence in trying to avoid the death sentence for his client and ignored extensive documentation of his troubled past. Stankewitz was born into a poverty-stricken and abusive home, and records show he was severely emotionally damaged by age six.

Writing for the court, Judge Raymond C. Fisher said the jury might have chosen a life sentence had it known of Stankewitz' upbringing and his heavy drug use just hours before the murder.

Stankewitz' defense lawyer "did not obtain a psychological examination of Stankewitz, despite his belief that Stankewitz was not mentally competent, and did not pursue any of the evidence of Stankewitz's history of drug and alcohol abuse," Fisher wrote.

The ruling upheld a decision by a district court judge.

Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain dissented, saying the lower court applied the wrong legal standard and the case should have been returned to a district court for reconsideration under the correct one.

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Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com