2 California death row inmates die; virus suspected

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Two more California death row inmates died Friday from apparent complications of the coronavirus in the midst of an outbreak that has infected about 40% of inmates at San Quentin State Prison, corrections officials said.

Scott Thomas Erskine, 57, and Manuel Machado Alvarez, 59, died at outside hospitals.

Erskine was sent to death row in 2004 for molesting and strangling Jonathon Sellers, 9, and Charles Keever, 13, who disappeared in 1993 while riding their bicycles to a riverbed area in San Diego.

DNA samples linked them to Erskine, who had been in state prison since 1994, serving a 70-year term from San Diego County for rape and other sex crimes, according to a statement from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The victim was a San Diego woman.

Alvarez was sent to death row in 1989.

“In a four-day period in May 1987 in Sacramento, Alvarez raped a 38-year-old woman, fled in a stolen vehicle, fatally wounded a 35-year-old man while trying to rob him, and knocked a 78-year-old woman unconscious and stole her car,” the corrections department said.

He fled and was arrested 12 days later in Mississippi.

There have now been two dozen deaths from COVID-19 in California’s prison system, according to state figures. More than 2,600 inmates are listed as actively having the infection, along with nearly 500 employees.

Nearly 1,400 of the 3,500 inmates at San Quentin have tested positive for the virus since officials transferred 121 inmates from the heavily impacted California Institution for Men in Chino on May 30 without properly testing them for infections. Until then, San Quentin had been virus-free.

California lawmakers this week harshly criticized corrections officials, saying they botched their handling of the virus pandemic.

The corrections department says it has taken steps to ensure social distancing and testing for San Quentin prisoners, added additional health care staff, sent tens of thousands of masks and other safety equipment there, and established an “ambulance strike team” to quickly move patients to outside hospitals if needed.

Two other death row inmates have died in recent days. Richard Stitely, 71, died last week in his cell. He was found to have the virus although the cause of his death hasn’t been officially determined, authorities said.

Stitely was sentenced to death in 1992 for the rape and murder of Carol Unger, 47, who left a Los Angeles bar with him in 1990.

Joseph S. Cordova, 75, died Wednesday after being found unresponsive in his cell, although authorities hadn’t determined the cause of death or whether he had COVID-19.

Cordova had been on California’s death row since 2007, when he was sentenced for the 1979 rape and murder of 8-year-old Cannie Melinda Bullock in San Pablo.