2 San Quentin death row inmates die from COVID-19

©The Sacramento Bee

A view of San Quentin State Prison. The prison is seeing an explosion of coronavirus cases after a botched transfer from another facility. - Eric Broder Van Dyke/Dreamstime/TNS

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Two of California death row’s most notorious inmates apparently died from COVID-19, bringing the number of inmates across the state to die after contracting the coronavirus to at least 24.

The men, convicted child killer Scott Thomas Erskine and Manuel Machado Alvarez, both died on July 3, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a news release.

Both men were being treated at outside hospitals after being sickened by coronavirus inside San Quentin State Prison, where the virus has run rampant for nearly two weeks. Nearly 1,400 inmates, one in three housed in the famed Marin County facility, have tested positive for the virus, and the prison accounts for more than half of all infections in the CDCR system, according to its coronavirus dashboard.

In total, 5,280 inmates have been infected with the coronavirus in the state’s prisons since April, with 1,441 new cases since June 19.

Alvarez, 59, was convicted more than 30 years ago for a May 1987 spree over four days in which he raped a 38-year-old woman, fatally stabbed a 35-year-old Sacramento Police Department identification technician while trying to rob him and injured a 78-year-old while stealing her car. According to CDCR officials, Alvarez fled the state and was arrested 12 days later in Mississippi. He’s been on death row since Sept. 20, 1989.

Alvarez, a native of Cuba who was 28 at the time, didn’t bat an eye as he was sentenced to death by Superior Court Judge Darrel W. Lewis for the death of Allen Ray Birkman at an ATM, according to previous Sacramento Bee reporting. In an unusual post-sentencing statement in open court, Prosecutor Patrick Marlette said he “had hoped Mr. Alvarez would have a sense of the loss he has caused. … That apparently has not happened.”

Birkman, who worked his last seven years for the Sacramento Police Department, “never faulted another person,” his father said. “Allen never saw the dark side of another person,” according to Bee reporting at the time.

At the time of the crimes, Alvarez, who was 26, had been out on parole for after serving time for killing one man and stabbing another through the throat during a knife attack in Los Angeles County on Dec. 27, 1981. During his incarceration at trial, Alvarez also attacked two inmates at the Sacramento County Main Jail.

A compromise verdict was returned by the jury against Alvarez’s co-defendant, Belinda Denise Ross, who admitted driving the getaway car following the stabbing of Birkman. Ross was found guilty of the attempted robbery of Birkman, but the jury rejected a murder finding against her, instead convicting her as an accessory after the fact.

Erskine, 57, was convicted for the 1993 murders of Charlie Keever, 13, and Johnathon Sellers, 9, who disappeared after leaving home to ride their bikes to the Otay River banks in San Diego, CDCR said. The children were found two days later bound and gagged. Prosecutors said at the time there were signs of violent sexual assault and torture,

The murders weren’t solved until DNA evidence linked Erskine, who had already been a CDCR inmate since 1994, to the crimes in 2004 using a discarded cigarette and a cotton swab of one of the boys’ bodies. Already serving a 70-year term for a litany of sex and firearms charges, a judge sentenced Erskine to death for the boys’ murder on Sept. 1, 2004, after a second jury convicted him.

The mothers of the two boys told the San Diego Union-Tribune that they received phone calls from prison officials Friday morning informing them of the death.

One of the mothers, Maria Keever, said she had long hoped to talk to Erskine about the murders. She said he turned her down and refused.

“I hoped he would change his mind, but he did not want to talk to me,” she told the U-T. “It seems so final. I’m never going to know now.”

The mothers started the Jonathan Sellers and Charlie Keever Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting child safety and well-being, preventing child abduction and exploitation, and providing support to families who have lost a loved one to violence.

CDCR officials were excoriated for their “failure of leadership” less than a week ago by lawmakers after blaming them for triggering the state’s worst prison outbreak.

At a hearing in Sacramento on Wednesday, lawmakers told the prison officials they botched their handling of the coronavirus pandemic by inadvertently transferring infected inmates to a virus-free prison in Susanville, which was first reported by The Bee on June 26. In addition to the 24 inmates, two employees of the prison system have also died.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, labeled the transfer the “worst prison health screw-up in state history.”

San Quentin this month has rocketed to the top of a list of state prison outbreaks after inmates were transferred from another infected facility. In response, the state a week ago issued a two-week freeze on most inmate transfers.

Last month, three prison inmates who were moved from San Quentin to the High Desert State Prison tested positive for COVID-19, sparking an outbreak that spiked number of cases in rural Lassen County and its reopening plans in jeopardy.

The transfers initially tested negative for COVID-19 and were housed with other inmates, Richard Egan, Lassen County’s administrative officer, told The Bee at the time.

As of Saturday, 221 confirmed cases of coronavirus have been reported at the California Correctional Center in Susanville, the fourth-highest concentration of infections in the CDCR system. Whether people from any other facility had also been transferred into Susanville is unknown. Not counting the prison outbreak, Lassen County had just three other residents test positive for COVID-19. It has reported only 12 infections since the pandemic began. No deaths have been reported.

While San Quentin has the highest number of infections and at least two deaths, the California Institution for Men in Chino has been considered the epicenter of the state’s prison outbreak. There, 16 inmates have died from COVID-19 complications while 283 inmates are currently infected.

Another 37 who were housed in Chino have been released after contracting the virus, including a man who was freed early in April and later tested positive in Ukiah. Mendocino County authorities contend state prison officials knew the man had been exposed to the virus and didn’t follow quarantine protocols. A CDCR spokeswoman at the time said the man had met the “criteria for expedited release as laid out in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation plan.”

California’s prison medical system was placed under federal receivership in 2006, after a federal court ruled that conditions for inmates violated their constitutional rights. The receiver is still in place.

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©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)