Coroner Probes Second Inmate Death At Coronavirus-Stricken San Quentin

A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officer wears a protective mask as he stands guard at the front gate of San Quentin State Prison on June 29, 2020 in San Quentin, California.
Photo credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Officials are investigating the passing of a death row inmate at coronavirus-stricken San Quentin State Prison after he was found unresponsive in his cell Wednesday afternoon.

The body of 75-year-old Joseph Cordova, on California’s death row since 2007, was discovered just after 4 p.m. in his single cell at the North Bay prison. A release from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said there were no signs of trauma and that Cordova's "cause of death and COVID-19 status will be determined by the Marin County Coroner."

Cordova was sentenced in 2007 for the long-unsolved rape and murder of eight-year-old Cannie Melinda Bullock in San Pablo dating back to August 1979. Investigators connected him to the crime through use of DNA technology in 2002.

At that time, Cordova was already serving a prison sentence in Colorado for child molestation.

While the CDCR has not yet confirmed any San Quentin inmate deaths related to the virus, data shows over 1,120 active infections at the prison as of late Wednesday. More than 820 of those have been confirmed in the last two weeks. Many staff members have also tested positive.

This comes as prisoner advocates are pushing for better medical care inside one of the state's oldest lock ups. 

“Old prisons, old inmates, badly ventilated," said Don Spector, executive director of the Prison Law Office which filed suit to relieve the overcrowding at San Quentin. Spector says the prison's antiquated design makes it impossible to socially distance.

“Many of these steps have been reactive instead of proactive. And the latest example of that is we have been asking for quite a bit of time now that all staff should be tested because they are the main vectors in which the virus gets into these prisons. And they only agreed to test all staff after the court issued an order," he said. 

The death comes after news broke Tuesday that a 71-year-old death row inmate who died last week tested positive for the coronavirus. Tests are pending to confirm a cause of death in that case.

And the outbreak at San Quentin may have spread to another prison. Lassen County, which up until May 22 had no virus cases, says 214 people at a prison in Susanville have now tested positive after inmates from San Quentin were transferred there in early June.

The Marin County Sheriff's Department declined to comment for this story.