SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif — The family of a man incarcerated in San Diego who died from COVID-19 has filed a wrongful death claim against the California corrections department.
The claim, submitted to the Office of Insurance and Risk Management on May 9, is a precursor to filing a lawsuit against the state for its role in Leon Martinez’s death.
It is the only known claim that has been filed against the San Diego prison for a COVID-19 death, the risk management office said, and one of seven that have been filed across the state prison system.
Martinez was serving a sentence of 28 years to life in prison at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa for his role in a high-profile cold case murder. At 48, he was the youngest of 18 Donovan inmates to die from the virus.
Martinez’s wife and three children allege staff refused to wear masks or engage in social distancing, leading him to contract COVID-19. Once he was sick, the claim says, he was not given the medical care he needed.
The filing also describes that Donovan inmates with COVID-19 were kept in close quarters with those who were not infected, which prison officials have acknowledged took place during a winter outbreak.
Hospital records show Martinez had a myriad of underlying medical conditions — including asthma, uncontrolled diabetes, hepatitis C, anemia and seizure disorder — that can increase the chances of COVID-19 complications.
Evangelina Garcia, Martinez’s wife, said the prison should have identified him as high-risk when the pandemic began and moved him to a clean and secure housing area where he would not have contracted the virus.
“They’re accountable for what happened to him,” said Garcia, who lives in Yucaipa in San Bernardino County. “I feel they let us down. I feel they gave him a life sentence he was not supposed to have.”
By coincidence, Garcia had COVID-19 in December, at the same time as her husband, but she quickly recovered from her fever and chills. Martinez never did.
“This isn’t the way it was supposed to end,” Garcia said.
A spokesperson for the corrections department would not answer questions about Martinez’s death or his family’s claim, citing health privacy laws and a policy to not comment on pending litigation. The department has previously defended its response to the pandemic, pointing to vastly reduced infection rates in state prisons, and said it takes the health and safety of its residents seriously.
The prison system has said medical staff regularly monitor COVID-positive inmates and transfer them to hospitals if they need a higher level of care.
Martinez died in the wake of a massive winter outbreak at Donovan prison that resulted in 700 infections, 18 inmate deaths and one staff death. Statewide, nearly 50,000 California prisoners have contracted the virus and more than 200 have died.
Martinez was convicted of killing 17-year-old Victoria Ghonim, a crime that occurred in 1992 while her infant son was in the car. The case went unsolved for more than a decade, but when investigators tested DNA from the scene in 2006, they matched it to Martinez and his roommate. Martinez later testified that the victim’s husband offered to pay him $20,000 to commit the murder, though the dollar figure has been disputed in court. He was convicted in 2015.
Garcia was also sentenced in the case. She served three months in jail for attempting to discourage Martinez’s ex-girlfriend from testifying against him.
Martinez’s family said his crime and conviction didn’t change the way they viewed him or how much they loved him. His children were looking forward to his possible release from prison in 2029.
“He was my best friend. He was my everything,” his son Andrew Martinez said.
Since his mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016, Andrew and his father have spoken on the phone almost every day.
The 19-year-old said the claim will help the family hold the prison accountable for his father’s death.
“We all would’ve felt bad if we just let it happen,” he said.
Calling for answers
Garcia knew something was wrong when Leon Martinez didn’t call on their daughter’s birthday like he did every year. The next day, on his own birthday — New Year’s Eve of 2020 — the phone still didn’t ring.
As the days passed, the family grew more concerned. Martinez had rarely been out of touch for that long in his 12 years behind bars. On Jan. 8, Garcia tried calling at least eight phone numbers for Donovan with no success. A prison counselor finally told her Martinez had been transferred to a hospital, but he wouldn’t say which hospital or why.
Medical records show Martinez tested positive for COVID-19 at Donovan on Jan. 5. The prison called 911 two days later because he had trouble breathing.
When he arrived at Alvarado Hospital Medical Center in eastern San Diego, Martinez had a dangerously low blood oxygen level of 77% and was treated for respiratory failure. He was transferred to the intensive care unit that day and diagnosed with pneumonia.
Meanwhile, Garcia was calling hospitals throughout San Diego County searching for her husband. When she finally learned he was at Alvarado, she said she left her phone number with hospital staff but nobody would tell her about Martinez’s condition.
On Jan. 11, his fever rose to 103 degrees and he was placed on a ventilator. That’s when a doctor at Donovan called Garcia to explain her husband had COVID-19 and it was serious. The staff member wouldn’t answer many of her questions, Garcia said.
Without permission from the hospital or prison, Garcia immediately drove to Alvarado. Healthcare staff wouldn’t allow her in Martinez’s room, but they did let her see him on a video call.
Alvarado hospital did not answer questions about Martinez’s illness and death or its protocols for treating incarcerated patients.
For the following two weeks, the family was left to wait.
“It was just torture for us,” Garcia said.
After days of incessant calling, a Donovan doctor told Garcia her husband’s condition had not changed — he remained on a ventilator with COVID-19 — and said the prison would only call back if Martinez died.
On Jan. 23, Garcia received a call from the prison saying her husband was in critical condition and that she could visit him in the hospital. When she arrived with Martinez’s three children, the family was not allowed to speak to him and could only peer at his medical bed across the room through a glass window. They could barely see his face.
Leon Martinez Jr., 22, said it was the first time he had seen his father since his conviction seven years earlier. The trauma of visiting his father in county jail before being transferred to prison — shackled and prevented from hugging — kept him away from the correctional facility. This time, his father was unconscious and hooked up to a ventilator.
“I just felt like, I don’t know. It felt unreal,” he said.
A day after the visit, Martinez crashed. Medics performed CPR but couldn’t revive him. He died on Jan. 25.
“It breaks my heart because he was robbed of being there for his kids,” said Martinez’s first wife, Sunshine Martinez.
“He has a lot of people that really love him and will always love him,” she added.
Born in Los Angeles County, Martinez had his first son, Leon Jr., with Sunshine Martinez in 1998. The couple divorced and Martinez moved to Yucaipa, where he met and married Garcia. They had a son and daughter together, and when they could get away from work, they would take the children camping, riding ATVs and exploring the wilderness.
Martinez’s family described him as an outgoing man and supportive father. He was never able to meet his 4-year-old grandson, Leon Martinez III.
Martinez Jr. said his father turned him into a fly fisher and outdoorsman who is almost always by the river or in the mountains.
“When I’m out there, I feel so good, like I’m with my dad,” he said.
In those moments, he said, the grief of his father's unexpected death fades away.
‘I still need answers’
The corrections department requires inmates to have multiple forms on file if their relatives want updates on their medical conditions. Even with the paperwork complete, the prison system has said it usually doesn’t tell families about inmate hospitalizations for security reasons.
Garcia said her husband had filled out the necessary forms and she should have received clearer communication about his illness. She said Martinez was strongly opposed to being ventilated, but she was not given a chance to relay that to his doctors or help guide his medical care.
A corrections department spokesperson did not respond to questions about what happened in the weeks before Martinez died.
A case summary written by an Alvarado hospital doctor on Jan. 25 says Martinez was “ripping his lines and broke a high flow oxygen machine” before he was placed on a ventilator. Later that day, when doctors inserted a catheter into his neck, medical notes described it as an emergency procedure and that there was “no family available” to consent.
Donovan has released little information about the incarcerated people and staff member who died from COVID-19. Garcia said nobody has told her how Martinez contracted the virus or what medical care he received before he was taken to the hospital.
“I still need answers and accountability,” Garcia said.
Have you or someone you know had an experience with Donovan prison you want to share? Tell us your story by emailing email@example.com.
Almost two months after Martinez died, Garcia and her son Andrew drove almost two hours to Donovan to pick up Martinez’s belongings. The boxes were lighter than they expected, and when they opened one up, they couldn’t believe it. The prison had given them a different inmate’s property, Garcia said.
They drove back to the prison and were able to get the correct items. The relatives of three other Donovan inmates who died from COVID-19 told inewsource they are still waiting to receive their loved ones’ belongings more than four months after their deaths.
“We felt very disrespected,” Garcia said. “That was the last thing they could have made right. They had their chance to make that right for us.”
A corrections department spokesperson said Donovan prison is reviewing its property handling process as a result of the mixup with Martinez’s belongings.
Donovan’s track record
Legal filings and administrative reports show Donovan has among the worst track records of California’s 35 adult prisons for its handling of the pandemic. In an ongoing class action case, the prison acknowledged housing COVID-positive inmates with people who didn’t have the virus because employees were overwhelmed by the winter outbreak.
The state’s prison oversight office found Donovan issued its staff with the most written citations of any prison for refusing to wear masks or practice social distancing in December — around the time when Martinez and hundreds of others contracted the virus.
A new report the oversight office released on May 19 found the corrections department has done a poor job controlling problem prison staff around the state. It paid out more than $1 million in salaries and benefits to employees in the past two years while moving slowly on their discipline cases.
“I don’t think Mr. Martinez’s case is an isolated case whatsoever,” said civil rights attorney Salomon Zavala, who filed the family’s claim.
He called the prison’s treatment of Martinez and other Donovan inmates “a deliberate indifference of the life of these individuals that were incarcerated.”
Zavala said attorneys are often reluctant to take on complex wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of prisoners — the payouts can be low and take years to manifest — but he chose to work on Martinez’s case after hearing the family’s story.
“This case reeks of the lack of humanity,” Zavala said.
Few COVID-19 wrongful death cases have been brought so far against the California corrections department. The family of San Quentin inmate Daniel Ruiz sued the prison system in federal court in March, alleging a botched transfer of inmates from another state prison led to widespread infections and Ruiz’s death.
Of the seven known COVID-19 wrongful death claims against the state prison system, the Martinez family’s claim is the only one still under review — five others were rejected by the risk management office and one was incomplete.
Bringing a lawsuit against the California government is a multi-year process that has grown longer during the pandemic. Because of the state’s COVID-19 executive order, the period to file a wrongful death claim has been extended to one year, and the office has about six months to review it.
If the Martinez family’s claim is rejected, they can sue. The lawsuit could take five or more years to be resolved because of a growing backlog of court cases.
Garcia said she hopes her actions will help other families affected by COVID-19 deaths at Donovan who may not know how to file a claim or advocate for change in the prison system.
“Every inmate there either has a mother, a father, a son, a daughter, a wife praying for them out here,” she said. “And we’re doing the time with them.”
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