Catina Salarno knew her killer well. They lived across the street from each other in San Francisco and dated throughout high school. When she broke up with him the summer before college started she thought she’d have a fresh start at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. But on the first day of classes Steven John Burns was there. He’d enrolled without telling her, and now—after growing increasingly aggressive—he said he just wanted one last conversation to hash things out.
“He kept calling her to meet just one more time to say goodbye and then he would leave the school,” says Harriet Salarno, Catina’s mother.
The conversation didn’t go the way Burns had hoped. As Catina walked away he pulled out a gun he’d stolen from her father—his own godfather—and executed her. He then left Catina to die as he went back to his dorm to watch football.
That was 35 years ago, but Harriet Salarno has not forgotten.
“He’s a true sociopath,” she says. “If they don’t get their way they destroy.”
Catina’s murder was the first trauma the Salarnos faced. The second was the “horrible” trial, in which the family was not even allowed into the courtroom. “After going through the criminal justice system I soon found out that the justice system is not for the victims,” Harriet says. “It’s for the perpetrator.”
In her grief, Salarno became an activist. In 1991, she and her husband founded Crime Victims United of California, an organization that advocates for victims and a tougher criminal justice system. Since then, Salarno has become one of California’s most public faces in the fight for victims’ rights and tougher sentencing. She’s currently involved with dozens of public safety bills, including an effort to reform California’s beleaguered death penalty system.
A proposed ballot initiative—endorsed by former governors George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis—would resume and expedite executions for the 700-plus people living on California’s death row. (Salarno’s daughter’s killer is not one of them.) Executions were halted in 2006, and both advocates and opponents of capital punishment agree that the state’s death penalty is a “broken system.” But the divide comes on how it should be fixed.
“The side that’s fighting to replace the death penalty (with life sentences) says that it’s broken beyond repair, there’s no political will to fix it, and we shouldn’t be spending our precious state dollars trying to figure out how to fix it,” says Ana Zamora, senior policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Northern California chapter. “The other side, which has district attorneys and other members of law enforcement, says that investing money, time and expertise in an attempt to change the system is a good use of California’s resources.”
The origins of the debate go back to the 1970s when California—mirroring decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court—engaged in a series of legal battles over the constitutionality of capital punishment. Ultimately, voters approved the death penalty with Proposition 17 in 1972. Another ballot initiative would need to be passed to overturn it.
Even though voters sanctioned the death penalty, legal challenges held up the first execution, carried out by gas chamber, until 1992.
In 2006, the state’s lethal injection protocol, which began a decade prior, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was told to discontinue the practice until it rewrote its policy. Since the CDCR has yet to do so, no one in the state has been put to death.
Without a constitutional amendment to overturn the death penalty, a bizarre system exists in which people can be sentenced to death but can’t be executed. California’s death row population has grown so vast that it represents “almost a quarter of the people on death row in the United States,” according to Matt Cherry, executive director of the group Death Penalty Focus.
Maintaining this system comes at a steep cost. Taxpayers have spent $4 billion on the death penalty since the 1970s, or $184 million per year. Santa Clara County has sentenced just two people to death between 2000 and 2007, and the estimated cost was $2.2 million.
“California is sentencing all these people to death row—24 people last year—but the system is so broken and expensive that California has not executed anyone in years,” Cherry says. “So all along it’s been a broken and ineffective system at achieving its stated goals."
The logical solution is to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole, Cherry argues. The change would “save millions of dollars” and “guarantee public safety and adequate punishment for the worst offenders."
In 2012, Proposition 34 attempted to do just this, but voters rejected it by a few percentage points. Still, the vote showed public opinion has shifted. When capital punishment was reinstated in 1972, 67.5 percent voted in favor of it. Forty years later, that number is only 53 percent.
The answer is reform, not abolition, according to death penalty advocates like Salarno. “Reform the appeal process, reform death row housing and victim restitution, reform the appointment of appellate counsel and the agency that overlooks it—those are the key things—one, two three,” she says.
The proposal she’s backing—which needs at least 800,000 signatures by mid-July to make it onto November’s ballot—would eliminate the need to rewrite the state’s lethal injection procedure, so that executions can resume. The plan would also limit the appeals process to five years, transfer challenges to lower courts and require prisoners to work and pay restitution to their victims.
“We want the cases reviewed in a timely manner,” says Kent Scheidegger, who helped draft the proposal and serves as legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “In the typical case, it is entirely feasible for all state court reviews to be completed in five years, as opposed to 10 or 15 now. It will save money by shortening the amount of time prisoners are kept on death row.”
In addition, Scheidegger says, hastening executions is good for public safety. “If you carry it out more quickly and with more certainty, it’ll have a stronger deterrent effect,” he says.
Cherry calls the proposal “misguided and deeply flawed” because it would “result in endless constitutional challenges” that would cost the state even more money. More importantly, he points out, shortening the review process increases the chances an innocent person could be executed.
Just last month, Glenn Ford, a 64-year-old Louisiana man, was exonerated after spending more than 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit—making him the 144th American freed under such circumstances in the modern era. “If it wasn’t for that time allowed for reviews and appeals he would have been executed a long time ago and we never would have gotten to see the evidence that he was innocent,” Cherry says.
Across the nation, public support for capital punishment is in decline. Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty, and in recent years states like Washington and Oregon have placed moratoriums on executions citing costs, flawed prosecutions, racial discrimination and a shortage of lethal injection drugs.
“The death penalty is front and center nationally right now, not because states are changing death penalty procedures, but because states are getting rid of it,” Zamora says. “We should be thinking about how to spend our time and money making California a better place. Education should be a priority, not how to fix our multi-million dollar debacle known as the death penalty.”