On October 18, 1995, Donna Larsen’s life changed during a medical appointment. She was driven there by her 22-year-old son Keith, and when she couldn’t find him after seeing the doctor, she became worried. Making her way outside on crutches, Donna saw Keith surrounded by the police, in the process of being arrested. That was the last time that she set eyes on him as a free man.
Donna and Keith lived in Fresno, California, where six sex workers had been attacked that year. Keith, a long-distance truck driver, had no prior criminal record, but he had a vehicle and weapon that matched those involved. He was charged with murdering two women, and with the attempted murder of four others. When his case went to trial in 1996, he was convicted and then sentenced to death. Throughout his 23 years on San Quentin State Prison’s death row, he has maintained his innocence. It’s a position he still keeps today, as does Donna.
“A lot of people say ‘you're just the mum, you're just saying that he's innocent because you're the mother’. Well, I'm the kind of person who probably wouldn't say that unless I believed it,” Donna explains. “I would say ‘he's on death row and I'm trying to save his life’ — meaning not to execute him. Even if he was guilty, I would still be working hard to save his life.”
In 20 Years on Death Row, French journalist Agnès Buthion documents Keith’s case — the questions that remain about the evidence against him; whether his trial was fair; the actions of his defence attorney, who was later suspended from the California bar; and whether new information that has recently been brought to light can make a difference. The documentary also chart’s the now 76-year-old Donna’s quest over the past two decades, a journey that has seen her study law, become a paralegal and do whatever she could to help save Keith from execution.
With 20 Years on Death Row airing on SBS Australia from September 16, Donna talked to us about the reality of having a son awaiting execution for two decades, her determination to maintain hope and her decision to take an active role in his legal fight.
On that day in October 1995 when Keith was arrested outside your medical appointment, what was going through your mind at the time?
I was scared to death. We didn't know what was happening. We had never known Keith to be in trouble with anybody or to have anything to do with the law.
"It has opened my eyes to the inconsistency and the injustice within the legal system."
It’s now 23 years since that moment, almost to the month. What has your life been like over that period?
My first word is hell. With a capital H-E-L-L. But I suppose that I have to look at it in a positive way, that we have to help Keith and not be negative all the time. Because if I’m negative, then I get stuck — so I have to stay on the positive side, and hopeful, with some type of faith that we'll get him released before I die, which could be soon.
It's really been a challenge for us as a family. Many of our immediate family members that we were very close to have all died, and I'm sure it's due to the stress of this, because they were very supportive of Keith. And so over these 23 years, my daughter, Keith and I are basically the only ones left in our immediate family. And that whole process has happened; it's almost like seeing a butterfly in a cocoon — and the butterfly dies off. That's kind of like the way my life has gone over the past 23 years. It hasn’t been easy. It has been very, very difficult.
With everything that has happened since Keith’s arrest — the trial, his conviction, being sentenced to death, the appeals — how do you maintain hope?
I've thought about that a lot — how do I maintain hope? My first answer would be that I maintain because of Keith. He is so positive. You never hear a negative word out of his mouth, even when things go bad at the court, or his case isn't going well. Or if he's not feeling well, or something bad happens at the prison — although he's not involved but it affects him. He gives me the energy to keep going, because he's so positive.
The other part is survival. Just surviving as a mother, knowing that her son is innocent on death row, that pushes me. It's like this wind-up toy that you wind up and then I just go. I guess you call it the Energizer bunny.
Can you tell me about your daily reality now — visiting Keith, working on his case, trying to prove his innocence?
My daughter and I have just moved to Redding. That is four hours away from Keith. We lived an hour away from him, but my daughter, who has a doctorate and is a nurse practitioner, she got a job up here and she insisted that I move with her — because of my age, and not travelling all the time to see her. Because those are my only two children, and like I said, we don't have family to go visit or anything, so she wanted to keep me close to her side.
So I used to go Saturday to see Keith. Now I go every other Saturday to see him. And the time we have to visit, which has to be made by appointment seven days prior to going — I have two and a half hours to be with him.
I really challenge that two and a half hours — because not seeing him every week, it feels like it has been forever since I've seen him, even though it has just been two weeks.
To keep all of that in perspective, just today, I have probably spent four and a half hours working on his case — and that is, I’m working on some letters to send to the Governor for a pardon for death row. I don't know if that'll work, but we'll try it. We'll try any avenue that we can think of to excite somebody to look at this case.
Thank god for Agnes [Buthion, 20 Years on Death Row’s director], that she was willing to take on this project and film this documentary. Things like that — my life does not stop at any point from not thinking or doing something for Keith.
I don't think I have a normal life. People say I have a normal life — no I don't. They don't know what I do. Because my whole process is, what other things can we do? What other things do I need to look for? What other investigations should I be working on? We think we've exhausted something and then something pops up and you go ‘oh my god! We didn't even know that — 23 years later and we know that now.’
When Agnès Buthion wanted to make a documentary about Keith and his case, what was your reaction?
When I first heard about it, my mouth went to the floor. I thought, “20 years later and now somebody is coming forward? And somebody from France that I don't even know?”. Thank God for small favours.
At first I was a little hesitant, but when I talked to her on the phone, she and I just clicked. And then when she came, she started going through all my stuff because she used a lot of my materials — I have a lot of the original material from court that would've been destroyed if I hadn’t gotten it.
In making the documentary, you relive the past two decades — for the first time, you go back to the place where you first saw Keith as a free man, for example. What was that like for you?
That was very difficult. I didn't think it was going to be. I thought, “that's a piece of cake, I can do this”. But I had not ever felt those emotions — I had not let myself feel those emotions. So when we went back over to the doctor's office where Keith was arrested, and she [Agnes] had me talk through that, oh my god, I thought I was going to faint with the fear and adrenaline that comes over you.
I was seeing him lay there on the ground, and I could visualise the whole thing all over again. That did upset me; however I kind of took a breath and I said “this did happen, I've lived with it and I just need to let the feeling that I’m having right now be felt” — so not to push it away any more, and to feel it.
And that has really helped me too, I didn't realise that I had bottled that all up.
After Keith’s conviction, you studied law and became a paralegal — what inspired that decision?
At the beginning, when Keith was arrested, I knew nothing about the law. I knew a little about medical law because I had been in the medical field for years, but nothing else. So when this happened, I thought, “oh my god, I've got to learn what I need to do”. And when the trial went so sour and was so bad. Even though we didn't know anything about criminal law, we would have attorneys walk up to us and say, "Keith's attorney isn't doing this and that, and he should be doing this and that”. And I'm thinking, “I don't know any of this stuff. I've got to learn this stuff”.
Then when the conviction came, I just remember there’s a light bulb moment where you go “I’ve gotta go to law school — something's really wrong here”.
So I was in law school, and around the time it came to take the bar, Keith's habeas [corpus] came up — his first habeas came up. And I was working on that a lot, and so I couldn't study for the bar. It was just a lot of things happening, my husband was sick, and it was like an upside-down life at that moment. So I decided the best thing to do would be to be a paralegal.
I'm glad I did, because I learned later that if I had become an attorney, I would not have been able to do what I have done by collecting the post-conviction exculpatory evidence. I would not have bee able to that as an attorney. But as a paralegal, I could do that.
And the other thing that it taught me was how far I could go in doing research and investigation and talking people, to not contaminate the case and cause a conflict of interest. Otherwise, I would've been doing what attorneys and investigators should have been doing, and many of them didn't, and I would have ruined the case when it got to the California Supreme court — they would’ve just thrown it out.
So the light bulb came on and said, “you've got to learn what to do to help your son, Donna”. It wouldn't have been a profession that I would have ever thought about studying.
Both as the mother of a man who has been through the legal system, and as someone who has studied and worked in the legal system, what opinion has your experience left you with?
It has opened my eyes to the inconsistency and the injustice within the legal system.
It's made me realise that you hear these stories that people say, “Oh they weren't fair; whether they were guilty or innocent doesn't matter because the court wasn't fair, the judge wasn't fair, the attorney wasn't fair, the prosecutor wasn't fair” — that's true, that happens. Which puts a negative eye on the judicial system here in California.