17 to life

Posted: Oct 04, 2002 12:00 AM
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- Their descent into victimhood came in one phone call on Sept. 3, 1979. Their daughter had been shot -- on her first day at the University of Pacific in Stockton. Catina Rose Salarno died shortly after midnight. Then followed the guilt and the blame. Catina's high school boyfriend Steven J. Burns confessed to the crime. Parents Mike and Harriet Salarno of San Francisco had seen Burns the morning of the murder. They were surprised that he had enrolled at UOP. Their daughter wasn't happy. Catina had broken up with Burns. At her request, Mike told Burns to leave Catina alone. It wasn't until later that he found out Burns had been stalking Catina. A jury later found Burns guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 17 years to life. Tuesday, Harriet and Mike attended their sixth parole hearing for Burns in 12 years. As we sat at picnic tables outside the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, Harriet told me: "I should have known. He was scheduled to go to school at Santa Clara. Why didn't I put that together?" Later, during the parole hearing, Harriet sobbed as officials described how Catina tried to crawl away after Burns shot her execution-style behind her left ear. Now Mike and Harriet could become pawns in the legal effort to free Burns. When they buried Catina, the Salarnos vowed they would make something positive out of this tragedy. Harriet formed a group now known as Crime Victims United. Fellow victims, family members and friends numbering more than 100 came to the parole hearing to support the Salarnos. Burns' state-appointed attorney Gary Diamond told the three-member parole panel that his client has been treated "much differently than other lifers," a possible violation of the Constitution's equal protection clause. Translation: If a victim's family is vocal, that's not fair to the killer. Diamond argued that the state has an obligation to parole Burns if he meets certain criteria and is judged a low risk of doing violence to the community. Burns didn't appear at this parole hearing, but he has appeared at others. When he has appeared, Diamond told reporters, the Salarnos broadcast how angry he appeared. When he didn't show, they called him a coward. It's a no-winner. On Tuesday, Diamond announced that Burns wouldn't show. San Joaquin District Attorney Robert Himelblau produced paperwork that showed Burns turned down a psychological interview because he didn't want to put the Salarnos "through any more pain and suffering." But Burns was not too sensitive to take three tests that led the doctor to evaluate Burns as low-risk, low-risk and moderate-risk to the community. (Himelblau has little regard for an evaluation without an interview.) Before the hearing, Diamond told the press that Burns was a "model prisoner. " Not quite. Burns was cited for sending sperm through the U.S. mail in 1996. Parole board member Al Angele noted a "possible Freudian slip" in a letter to a former cellmate/lover where Burns complained that his lover "abandoned me and left me for dead." Angele noted the same pattern of obsession and control caused Burns to kill Catina. The Salarnos believe that Burns, who has sent Mike 23 letters from prison, is stalking Mike from behind bars. Guess where Burns wants to be paroled? He doesn't want to live with his parents, who still live across the street from the Salarnos, but he does hope to live with his 86-year-old grandmother, who lives in the neighborhood. The board denied Burns parole and set the longest legal waiting period for his next hearing, five years. Diamond was coy as to whether he would file an appeal based on the Salarnos' campaign. Mike Salarno told the board that he had a chance to take vengeance on Burns. Instead, he said, "I chose the justice system." Now he faces the ugly, ugly prospect that someday the system will punish him for making sure that it works.