SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California parole officials on Wednesday were considering whether to release a killer whose crime led to the creation of one of the state’s best-known crime victims’ groups.
Harriet Salarno founded Crime Victims United of California after her 18-year-old daughter was fatally shot by her former boyfriend on her first day at the University of the Pacific in Stockton in 1979.
A parole panel was weighing arguments over whether 55-year-old Steven Burns should be freed from Valley State Prison in Chowchilla for killing Catina Rose Salarno.
Her sister, Nina Salarno, said the family created the organization out of their frustration with the criminal justice system.
“When my sister got murdered, my family got thrown into a system that just continues to cast victims aside,” she said in an interview before the hearing.
“It just was very apparent to our family that our system was so lopsided, so Crime Victims United was formed to bring balance to our system,” said Salarno, a former prosecutor who now is now president of the crime victims’ group. “The victims should have the same level playing field.”
Crime Victims United is also closely affiliated with the union that represents most state prison guards, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, and together have for many years been strong voices in the state Capitol for tougher criminal penalties and victims’ rights.
The Salarnos have repeatedly criticized changes in state law under Gov. Jerry Brown that have lowered the state prison population largely in response to federal judges’ orders to reduce crowded prison populations. They also criticized an increase in the number of paroles granted in recent years.
Harriet Salarno co-chaired the successful Crime Victims Bill of Rights ballot initiative in 1982 and promoted the passage of the Marsy’s Law initiative in 2008 that wrote victims’ rights into the state constitution.
Their activism was sparked by Burns, who is serving a 17-year-to-life prison term and had his 10th parole hearing.
He and Catina Salarno were neighbors in San Francisco and dated until she broke off the relationship as she left for college. He killed her using a gun stolen from the Salarno family’s business, shooting her in the back of the head after the two argued on campus, according to trial testimony.
Nina Salarno still recalls the trauma of testifying at his trial as a 12-year-old. She later became a deputy district attorney before eventually going into private practice. In 1999, then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer appointed her director of the state Department of Justice’s Office of Victims’ Services.
She argues that Burns remains a risk to public safety nearly four decades after the slaying. While he admits shooting her sister, Salarno said in previous parole hearings he has not acknowledged stealing the gun or stalking her sister before the murder.
“He does not admit to leaving her to die and all the actions both prior and subsequent,” she said. “You cannot rehabilitate until you accept full responsibility for the crime you committed.”
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