Voices: Donna Doolin Larsen

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Donna Doolin Larsen is tired.

She hasn’t rested since 1995, when she, her mother-in-law, and her then 22-year-old son

Keith walked out of her doctor’s office in Fresno, where he had driven her for knee surgery, and were greeted by police and FBI agents. They arrested Keith on the spot, on charges that he had killed two women and shot four others, all sex workers, from November 1994 through September 1995.

That was the last time she saw her son as a free man, and the beginning of a 26-year effort to prove his innocence, which she has never doubted. His death sentence in June 1996 simply strengthened her resolve.

“Some days I think I can’t go on. I’d like to pull the sheet over my head. But I just want to live long enough to see him walk out, and that’s what keeps me going. I can die after he’s out, I don’t care.”

So she has spent the last 26 years trying to prove it. She retired as a registered nurse and Allied Health teacher just before he went to trial and decided the best way to help Keith was to go to law school. But she soon realized that thanks to Keith’s notoriety in Fresno, she’d never be able to practice law there, and became a paralegal, opening her own business investigating cases for defense attorneys, working on appeals, but always focusing on Keith’s defense.

“If Keith hadn’t been in prison, I probably would have become a defense lawyer. But I found things that were very important to his case, about the crime, the incidents themselves.”

In 2018, a documentary on Keith’s case, 20 Years on Death Row, directed by French journalist Agnes Buthion, raised serious questions about Doolin’s case. Buthion interviewed a Fresno lawyer, David Mugridge, who provided a sworn statement that he has evidence, obtained from a now-deceased client, Josefina Sonia Saldana, that could exonerate Doolin, but can’t release it because of attorney-client privilege. (Saldana, who was convicted of an unrelated murder, died by suicide in jail in 2001.) According to the Fresno Bee, Doolin’s death penalty lawyers have asked the California Supreme Court to order Mugridge to release the information, but the Court still has yet to rule on their petition.

In addition, Doolin’s trial attorney Rudy Petilla, now deceased, resigned from the California State Bar in 2004 “after allegations of misconduct,” according to the Bee. Buthion told the paper that “I can’t say and don’t know if Keith Zon Doolin is guilty or innocent. . . . But, I am certain that his trial lawyer failed him.”

Donna Larsen does know and says that her son, who had no record before his arrest in 1996, is innocent. “i don’t have a doubt he’ll get out, it’s just when,” she says. “i want to see him walk out.”

She stopped working as a paralegal in 2015, but stayed active in working on Keith’s case, and expanding her efforts to supporting prisoners on death row, those sentenced to life without parole, and their families and friends on the outside.

“We have a second set of victims on death row. The families and loved ones [of these men] are also victims. And we need to support each other.”

The Death Row Working Group focuses solely on condemned inmates because, Donna says, “Death row issues are so different from mainline. It’s actually a case of two prisons within one.”

Just how different became clear during the pandemic. In May 2020, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and California Correctional Health Care Services  transferred 122 potentially coronavirus-infected prisoners from the California Institute for Men in Chino to San Quentin, failed to isolate them, and “caused a public health disaster,“ according to a report by the California Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

By the end of August 2020, 2,237 prisoners and 277 staff members were infected, and 28 prisoners and one staff member died as a result of complications from Covid. Death row “experienced a widespread outbreak” according to the OIG, probably spread by “the prison’s staff or incarcerated workers who performed duties in various areas of the prison.”

The Death Row Working Group sprang into action, Larsen says, contacting epidemiologists and health care workers to work with them in dealing with CDCR and assisting in controlling the outbreak.

“It was a very, very scary time,” Larsen says. “We were meeting every other week trying to stay on top of what was going on. There were four days when no one on death row got food. There was no backup in the kitchen when cooks got sick. Our group helped with getting them food by finding vendors. It was the most scared I’ve ever been for the guys on death row in all these years, it was worse than all the others — Legionnaire’s, measles, chicken pox, the flu — this was the most scary.”

An investigation by the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health in June resulted in a $421,880 fine, “nearly double the highest ever issued to any facility,” according to the LA Times.

Larsen’s other support group, Families of San Quentin, acts as a liaison between prison officials and the families of the imprisoned. Completely independent of CDCR, the group nevertheless meets regularly with the warden and according to Larsen, has found him to be “always receptive, always helpful.”

But for Larsen, now 79 years old, everything is secondary to her efforts to get her son out of prison. Her energy is as tireless as her belief that he is innocent.

“I’ve never doubted his innocence. Even when they arrested him I knew he didn’t do it. I knew where he was at the time the incidents happened. People ask me if I ever thought about it and I’ve always said no, I know he couldn’t have done it.”

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