In 2017, French journalist Agnès Buthion, right, posed for a picture with Keith Zon Doolin of Fresno, center. Buthion and cameraman Christopher Robson, left, went to San Quentin State Prison where Doolin has been on death row since his 1996 conviction for shooting six sex workers in Fresno. Special to The Bee
In 2017, French journalist Agnès Buthion, right, posed for a picture with Keith Zon Doolin of Fresno, center. Buthion and cameraman Christopher Robson, left, went to San Quentin State Prison where Doolin has been on death row since his 1996 conviction for shooting six sex workers in Fresno. Special to The Bee

Crime

California death-row inmate’s story of innocence will be shown in an unlikely place

By Pablo Lopez

plopez@fresnobee.com

February 18, 2018 07:00 AM

A documentary about a Fresno’s man 1996 conviction for shooting six sex workers – a crime spree that landed him on California’s death row – will air Tuesday in an unlikely place: French television.

French journalist Agnès Buthion, the director of the documentary called “20 Years on Death Row,” spent three months in Fresno last year, investigating the criminal trial of Keith Zon Doolin. She visited crime scenes, researched police and court documents, and talked to people with intimate knowledge of shootings.

She also interviewed Doolin, now 45, at San Quentin State Prison.

Her conclusion: Doolin didn’t get a fair trial.

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“I can’t say and don’t know if Keith Zon Doolin is guilty or innocent,” Buthion said. “But I am certain that his trial lawyer failed him.”

She was referring to Fresno attorney Rudy Petilla, who resigned from the State Bar of California Bar in 2004 after allegations of misconduct in another case. Petilla died in December 2013 at the age of 73.

Doolin, a Fresno truck driver with no criminal record, was sentenced to death row in San Quentin State Prison in 1996 after being convicted of shooting six sex workers in Fresno, 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.

Buthion said the highlight of the documentary is her interview with Fresno attorney David Mugridge who said on camera and in a sworn declaration that he has evidence that could exonerate Doolin. She said her biggest disappointment was that the Fresno Police Department and Doolin’s prosecutor, Dennis Cooper, were invited to to participate in the documentary, but declined her interview requests.

Critical information?

In the documentary, Mugridge said he received evidence from his former client, Josefina Sonia Saldana, who committed suicide in 2001 after she was convicted of killing Margarita Flores, of Fresno.

The information involves the shooting of Tucker, 27, who was killed on the night of Sept. 19, 1995. Her body was found in an alley behind Saldana’s home on South Grace Street north of Church Avenue, east of Golden State Boulevard.

Because of attorney-client privilege, Mugridge said he can’t release the information Saldana told him unless a court compels him to do it.

In 2016, Doolin’s death-penalty lawyers, Robert R. Bryan and Pamala Sayasane of San Francisco, asked the California Supreme Court to compel Mugridge to release the information, but the state’s high court has not yet ruled on their petition.

Fresno attorney David Mugridge is in a French documentary that will air Tuesday on French television. The documentary highlights the case of Keith Zon Doolin, who has been on California’s death row since 1996 after being convicted of shooting six sex workers in Fresno.
MARK CROSSE Fresno Bee file

The appellate lawyers say the evidence is crucial because 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 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. Saldana, 43, died by hanging 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.”

Buthion’s documentary includes details of the Saldana case.

Crime fascination

In an email, Buthion said the French are fascinated with real-life American crime stories. She said the Doolin case surprised her because he was given the death penalty in California, a state that most French people view as progressive.

She said she first learned of the Doolin case from the anti-death-penalty website called Save Innocents around August 2016. She said her producer, Pernel Media, shared her enthusiasm for documentary.

The end result is four 50-minute segments about the Doolin case that will air on French television station 13ème Rue Universal, which is owned by NBCUniversal.

Buthion was in Fresno from February to April last year with her cameraman Christopher Robson. She was assisted by Fresno investigator Jeff Gunn, a former Fresno police officer, who tracked down key people for Buthion to interview. She also interviewed Doolin’s mother, Donna Larsen, 73, who has worked tirelessly to prove her son is innocent.

In this 2000 photograph, Donna Larsen holds a photo of her son Keith Zon Doolin, who has been on California’s death row after being convicted in 1996 of shooting six sex workers in Fresno. Larsen is appearing in French documentary that will air Tuesday on French television.
GARY KAZANJIAN AP

Gunn, who was hired by Petilla to work on the Doolin case, also appears in the documentary. On camera, Gunn criticized Petilla for not mounting a good defense for Doolin, citing examples where Petilla ignored key evidence.

In 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.

Buthion, however, has doubts about the convictions, saying her investigation shows that Doolin might not have committed all of the crimes. “It certainly leads to the fact that Keith Doolin does deserve a new trial,” she said.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts