Dueling death penalty propositions draw controversy on eve of election

Kate Riggins believes the world would be a better place without Richard Hirschfield.

In 1980, Hirschfield abducted and murdered a young couple – raping the woman – before dumping their bodies in a ravine 30 miles east of Davis.

The man, John Riggins, was Kate Riggins’s son, a UC Davis pre-med student who was taking his girlfriend Sabrina Gonsalves to her sister’s birthday party when somehow they strayed into Hirschfield’s path on a foggy December night. They were only 18, and photos around that time show the beaming couple in the full blush of youth and promise.

“They were young people who would have contributed a great deal to the lives of many,” Kate Riggins said in a telephone interview Monday. “They had ambitions to go into the medical field, and they had such caring feelings about them.”

Riggins and her husband, Richard, had to wait more than three decades to see justice for John and Sabrina. Hirschfield was finally identified by a DNA match to semen found in John Riggins’ van.

But they will never get over the horror of the young couple’s death.

“Certainly a day does not go by that we don’t have these thoughts about them,” Kate said. “As parents, there’s nothing we can do. It just haunts us.”

They support continuing the death penalty in California, and in fact making it more efficient through the passage of Proposition 66. And they don’t trust that life without parole will deliver what it promises. As long as Hirschfield is alive, there’s a chance he can be released, a chance he could commit another crime – the terrible possibility that another family will suffer the heartbreak hers did.

If there is any chance that the thought of the death penalty could dissuade someone like Hirschfield from killing, it’s worth having, she said.

Likewise, Harriet Salarno doesn’t think her daughter’s killer would be any great loss to the world, should he be executed – although he won’t be, as his lawyers managed to save him from the death penalty.

Burns murdered Catina Rose Salarno Sept. 3, 1979 and was sentenced to 17 years to life. For the past 37 years, each time Burns came up for parole, Harriet and her family have traveled to Coalinga to oppose his release.

Catina was only 19, studying at the University of the Pacific, when Burns shot her because she broke up with him.

At the time of Burns’ trial, Salarno would have likely supported a life without parole sentence, had it been available, she said in a telephone interview Monday. But she has since changed her mind. After wrangling with legislators and the criminal justice system in the scope of her work with Crime Victims United, Burns has become mistrustful. Like Riggins, Salarno is concerned that life without parole could be reversed, and offenders released.

Salarno founded the Crime Victims United group after Burns’ trial to help and support others dealing with devastating losses and to lobby for stricter laws against crime.

However, not all victims are in lockstep on their positions on the death penalty.

Some supporters of Prop. 62, which would repeal the death penalty, have lost loved ones to killers who are now on death row.

Dionne Wilson’s police officer husband was killed in the line of duty in 2005, and at the time of the killer’s trial, she asked for the death penalty, thinking it was the right thing.

“But I was wrong,” she said in a video on the “Yes on Prop 62” website.  In a story posted on another death penalty abolition website, Death Penalty Focus, Wilson said she was jubilant when Irving Ramirez was sentenced to death, but as time passed, she wasn’t really feeling any better.

It was only when she began to work on forgiveness that she was able to move on and find peace again.

The Rev. Isreal Alvaran, United Methodist Clergy, said Wilson’s experience is universal.

“I really am mindful of the pain and suffering of people who have lost,” he said in a telephone interview. “The best closure is not to see someone die out of your need for revenge. Forgiveness is healing.”

Alvaran said some killers are people who have been deeply wronged themselves, born into poverty, suffering from racial prejudices – sometimes mentally ill. He believes everyone should have the chance to redeem themselves, and if they are killed, that right is taken from them.

“It’s a moral issue,” he said. “As a person of faith, I believe in the sanctity of life. I believe everyone has a chance to be transformed.”

Copyright 2016 KXTV


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