Fresno lawyer’s secret could lead to new trial for death row inmate

Keith Zon Doolin, taken at Christmas 2008 while on death row.
Keith Zon Doolin, taken at Christmas 2008 while on death row. Fresno Bee file

For two decades, Keith Zon Doolin has been on California’s death row, proclaiming his innocence in the shooting of six prostitutes in Fresno.

But now a Fresno lawyer who never has represented Doolin wants to provide information that could save Doolin from the executioner.

In a court declaration, attorney David Mugridge says his former client, Josefina Sonia Saldana, who committed suicide in 2001 after she was convicted of killing a pregnant woman, gave him information that could exonerate Doolin in one of his killings.

If true, then Doolin deserves a new trial or his freedom, says his appellate attorneys, Robert R. Bryan and Pamala Sayasane of San Francisco.

But Mugridge can’t just tell what he knows.

In general, attorney-client privilege continues even after a client has died. The protection covers communications between a client and his or her attorney in connection with legal advice.

The U.S. Supreme Court tackled one aspect of it in 1998 when it ruled on Swidler & Berlin v. United States. The case arose from President Bill Clinton’s firing of White House Travel Office employees. Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel, had sought legal advice from attorney James Hamilton. Nine days after consulting with Hamilton, Foster committed suicide.

An independent counsel investigating Clinton caused a grand jury to issue a subpoena for Hamilton’s handwritten notes. But the nation’s high court ruled that the attorney-client privilege survived Foster’s death; therefore, Hamilton’s notes did not have to be produced.

The high court’s ruling, however, did not tackle the sticky subject of whether a death row inmate’s life is more important than the privilege.

Brenda Gonzalez, press secretary and community liaison for the California Department of Justice, which is representing the state in Doolin’s appeals, said the agency does not comment on ongoing cases.

Six prostitutes shot in 10-month span

Doolin, now 43, was a long-haul Fresno truck driver with no criminal record before he was sentenced to death row in San Quentin State Prison in 1996 for shooting six prostitutes between Nov. 2, 1994, and Sept. 19, 1995. Inez Espinoza and Peggy Tucker were killed. Alice Alva, Debbie Cruz, Marlene Mendibles and Stephanie Kachman were seriously wounded.

In January 2009, the California Supreme Court upheld Doolin’s death sentence, ruling that each surviving victim identified Doolin as her assailant, and ballistics evidence established that Doolin’s Firestar .45-caliber handgun was used to kill Espinoza and Tucker.

Doolin also was linked by shell casings found at Espinoza’s and Kachman’s crime scenes, the high court’s ruling says, and tire impressions at Mendibles’ and Espinoza’s crime scenes were similar to the tread on his truck tires.

Mugridge’s declaration involves the killing of 27-year-old Tucker, who was shot during the night of Sept. 19, 1995. Court records say her body was found in an alley behind Saldana’s home on South Grace Street, north of Church Avenue and east of Golden State Boulevard.

In an interview this week, Mugridge said Doolin’s legal team began asking him about Saldana’s connection to Tucker in late December or early January. He gave them his declaration on Feb. 4.

In it, he says, “I have struggled about what to do with this predicament. As an attorney who has practiced for many years, I strongly believe in the rule of law. However, I also believe in doing what is right, and that includes doing whatever I can to ensure an innocent man is not wrongfully executed.”

But there was a caveat: Mugridge said he told Sayasane and Bryan that he was “bound by attorney-client privilege from disclosing how I came upon this information or the nature of the evidence.”

The only way he would divulge the information is “if a court directed me to do so,” he said.

“If the court says yes, then I will hand it over to them,” Mugridge said. “If the court says no, I will take it to my grave.”

Saldana testified in Doolin’s trial

Court records say Saldana, using the name Josefina Sonya Hernandez, testified in Doolin’s trial in Fresno County Superior Court that she heard dogs barking, a gunshot and a loud voice saying: “Oh, my God, oh, my God.”

However, she did not call police, according to her trial’s transcript.

Two years later, Saldana was arrested and charged with killing Margarita Flores, who was eight months pregnant. Police say Saldana lured Flores from her Fresno home with a promise of free baby furniture and diapers. After killing Flores, Saldana dismembered the body and scattered it in Southern California and Tijuana, Mexico.

Saldana was arrested after bringing Flores’ dead fetus to the hospital. Her alleged accomplice, Serafin Rodarte, 55, hanged himself inside a tiny room at Saldana’s home on Sept. 22, 1998. His suicide note said: “She made me do it.”

Saldana, 43, also died by hanging. She was found dead in her jail cell in March 2001, leaving behind a red-lettered proclamation of innocence.

“Fresno, may God forgive you,” Saldana wrote in lipstick on the wall. Another lipstick message addressed her two daughters: “Babies, I am no murderer. I love you.”

There was other evidence presented at Doolin’s highly publicized trial.

Prosecutor Dennis Cooper accused Doolin of picking up women for sex and then shooting them. Cooper also introduced evidence that Doolin once told an acquaintance that “prostitutes are dirty, sleazy and cheap and someone should remove them from Earth,” according to court transcripts.

In addition, prosecution witnesses portrayed Doolin as a man who hated women because of a troubled relationship with his mother. But Doolin testified he loved his mother. He denied shooting anyone. He testified he was out of town or with relatives when the shootings happened.

Arguing for a new hearing

Bryan and Sayasane say Doolin has other valid legal reasons to ask for a new trial.

During his trial, Doolin complained to the judge, saying his court-appointed attorney, Rudy Petilla, was ill-prepared to mount a defense. Court records say Doolin asked trial judge James Quaschnick three times to replace Petilla, but the judge denied his motions.

And on the day of the sentencing, Fresno attorney Katherine Hart appeared pro bono for Doolin, armed with declarations, legal motions and the transcript of a bankruptcy hearing that showed Petilla had committed fraud by borrowing money to finance his severe gambling habit, court records say. But Quaschnick denied Hart’s request without explanation, court records say.

Quaschnick said Friday that Doolin received a fair trial and that the California Supreme Court concurred and has denied a lot of Doolin’s issues.

Doolin himself apparently knew something was amiss during his trial.

Before he was sentenced to death, Doolin called The Bee, saying he wanted the death penalty – not because he wished to die but because he believed it was his only way to get top-notch lawyers to defend him. A death sentence would guarantee him automatic appeals and representation by some of the state’s finest lawyers, he explained. A life sentence would not.

“I never had a chance,” Doolin, then 23, said by telephone from the Fresno County Jail.

Questioning the defense

In seeking a new trial, Doolin’s appellate lawyers first challenged Fresno County’s method of paying private defense attorneys $40,000, $60,000 or $80,000 in death penalty cases, depending on the complexity. The amounts were set in an effort to hold down runaway costs associated with death penalty cases, court officials said. From that money, the lawyers had to pay for investigators and experts, as well as their own expenses.

To get the county contract, Petilla promised to spend $60,000 on investigators and expert witnesses and keep the remaining $20,000 as his retainer, court records show. But when court officials tallied the expenses after Doolin’s conviction, they found that Petilla spent less than $9,000 on investigators and experts and kept $71,000 for himself.

Typically, death penalty cases take years before going to trial, and tens of thousands of dollars are spent on investigations and expert witnesses, according to Fresno lawyers who have litigated them. But court records say Petilla did Doolin’s preliminary hearing within two weeks of his appointment and took it to trial within 60 days of the preliminary hearing. The records also say Petilla was in bankruptcy proceedings stemming from huge gambling debts only months before he accepted Doolin’s case.

He resigned from the California Bar in 2004 after allegations of misconduct in another case. Petilla died in December 2013 at age 73.

In their 2009 ruling, the Supreme Court justices agreed that paying a flat rate could cause attorneys to skimp on investigative services and expert witnesses. But Justices Ronald George, Marvin Baxter, Ming Chin, Carlos Moreno and Carol Corrigan rejected Doolin’s appeal, ruling that “a mere possibility for misconduct is insufficient” to grant a new trial.

Dissenting Justices Joyce Kennard and Kathryn Werdegar said Fresno County’s payment method gave lawyers incentive “to spend as little as possible on the defense  to pocket more money.”

“That is what happened here,” the two justices wrote.

Fresno County no longer uses this payment plan; expenses for investigators and experts come out of a separate fund.

After the high court’s ruling, Doolin’s appellate lawyers attempting to get a new trial continued to criticize Petilla but also challenged the prosecution’s evidence.

In Doolin’s October 2011 petition to the California Supreme Court, appellate lawyers say Petilla failed to hire a ballistic expert to challenge the firearm testimony, which they claim lacked a scientific basis and therefore was unreliable and subjective.

Petilla also didn’t retain an expert to help him challenge the state’s tire tread analysis or an expert on the reliability of eyewitness testimony since the surviving victims were high on heroin or other street drugs when they were shot, the appellate lawyers say.

In addition, Petilla failed to investigate whether another person had shot the victims.

Blue eyes, brown eyes

In January 2015, Bryan and Sayasane took over the representation of Doolin. Thirteen months later, they sent to the Supreme Court newly discovered evidence to the 2011 petition that includes Mugridge’s declaration and other evidence, such as Kachman telling police another man may have shot her, and Saldana’s potential link to another killing – the June 1993 fatal shooting of Fresno prostitute Natalie Carrasco, whose body was discovered outside Saldana’s home.

According to the 2016 supplemental petition, two weeks after Kachman was shot, police showed her several thousand photographs of suspects. Kachman then picked the photograph of a man who resembled Doolin. Kachman also told police that her assailant had blue eyes. The man she picked had blue eyes. Doolin has brown eyes.

The petition also says Saldana went to Carrasco’s funeral and became friends with her mother, Becky Carrasco. An unnamed Fresno police detective suspected Saldana had killed Natalie Carrasco, so the detective asked Becky Carrasco to “try and persuade Ms. Saldana to confess to her daughter’s murder,” the petition says. But before Carrasco could ask, Saldana committed suicide.

Bryan and Sayasane say the new evidence proves Petilla’s defense was inadequate; he only called two expert witnesses to testify on Doolin’s behalf to establish his guilt or innocence. In the penalty phase, which determined whether Doolin would receive the death penalty or life imprisonment, Petilla called one witness and submitted Doolin’s school records, court records show.

It is unclear when the court in Fresno will rule on Doolin’s 2011 petition for a new trial or whether it will rule on the appellate lawyers’ request to order Mugridge to divulge the information he got from Saldana. But Sayasane and Bryan say it would be a travesty of justice to keep Doolin on death row and not give him a new trial.

“Of the many murder cases I have handled, the most troublesome are those involving innocence or an inept trial lawyer,” said Bryan, who has been practicing law since 1978. “In the Doolin case, we have both.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts