Pleading for a deal: Potential third-striker gets 4 years instead of life

Under the state's three strikes law, Mike Salerno faced 25 years to life for stealing a jacket, but was sentenced to four years.
Under the state's three strikes law, Mike Salerno faced 25 years to life for stealing a jacket, but was sentenced to four years. Modesto Bee

Mike Salerno is getting another chance at freedom and he's grateful, sort of.

The Modesto man's long rap sheet qualified him for prosecution under California's "three strikes, you're out" law after he was caught walking out the door of Kmart in Ceres with a $64.99 NASCAR jacket that had no tags and had not been purchased.

A possible sentence of 25 years to life, which hung over Salerno's head during two years of litigation, evaporated last month when Judge Timothy Salter sentenced Salerno to four years in prison for second-degree burglary.

Although he maintains his innocence, Salerno was relieved.

"God put me in here to get me off dope," he said during a recent jailhouse interview. "I got a little bit of punishment, versus the rest of my life."

The case of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. jacket came and went with little fanfare in Stanislaus County Superior Court. Yet Salerno, like many others who cycle through the legal system, presented a puzzle to law enforcement.

At 43, Salerno has spent most of his adult life behind bars. He has a long history of drug abuse and mental illness, though he believes he could stay clean and sober if properly supervised. He doubts that he could ever work a full-time job.

But his crimes are more opportunistic than predatory.

And prison costs $36,000 a year per inmate.

So on the eve of his trial last month, a prosecutor offered a plea bargain, making Salerno one of a dozen local offenders who faced a third strike in 2007 but got a deal instead.

"He dodged a bullet," defense attorney Bill Miller said. "Let's hope he takes advantage of it."

A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said nonviolent offenders who face a third strike often end up with a plea deal, rather than the maximum sentence.

"The majority of the cases that we issue as three strikes resolve for less than three strikes," Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said. Such cases move slowly through the legal system, she said, because the consequences of a third strike are so severe.

The three strikes law was inspired by the 1993 murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas of Petaluma, who was kidnapped from her bedroom and killed by repeat offender Richard Allen Davis.

But the law has a sweeping reach that can affect violent and nonviolent offenders alike, prompting critics to argue that a life sentence for a petty crime amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

In a 5-4 decision in March 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court said states have a right to isolate repeat offenders, to protect public safety.

Salerno has two strikes on his record, stemming from a drug-crazed assault on two neighbors a dozen years ago, which ended with Salerno begging Modesto police officers to shoot him. He also has been convicted of breaking into an auto parts store, receiving drugs through the mail, possessing drugs and selling drugs.

He insists that most of his troubles stem from a bum start in life, which included an alcoholic stepfather who regularly beat up his mother and locked a 3-year-old Salerno in a closet, he has told a court-appointed psychiatrist. He has no family to turn to when he is released from custody, something that likely will happen in September or October because of time served. His mother is dead, two brothers committed suicide years ago and one sister in the Midwest won't take collect calls.

But an ex-wife would take Salerno in. The parents of a former cellmate would open their Stockton home to Salerno. And the leader of the Healing House ministry in Modesto said a place at a halfway house will be waiting for Salerno, if he agrees to live by the rules.

All hope Salerno's latest run-in with the law acts as a wake-up call.

Pastor Greg Young put it this way: "The biggest thing that I've tried to communicate to Michael in all of this is, 'You have made a lot of bad decisions in your life. ... In order for you to move forward and heal, you've got to come to the place of taking responsibility."

Salerno is a talkative guy who seems almost desperate to share his story, even if the portrait that results is less than flattering.

He knows that he easily could become a statistic -- half of all parolees return to prison within two years -- despite his newfound sobriety, a jailhouse baptism and daily Bible reading.

He said he is innocent, but pleaded no contest to end his legal saga.

He has been in custody since his Feb. 8, 2006, arrest and will remain in Modesto until officials tie up a few loose ends in his case. He went to court Friday to finish his sentencing, but the matter was delayed until Jan. 17. Once his case is done, he will be sent to prison to finish serving his time.

As a gesture of good faith, Salerno recently called his parole officer, to admit that he used drugs for eight months, yet passed regular drug tests because he taped a film canister filled with clean urine to his body.

He said he fessed up so his parole officer can search him better next time.

When he gets out, Salerno hopes to get by on disability payments from the Social Security Administration. He said he will make a fresh start by wearing clothes that cover his tattoos and staying away from neighborhoods where it's easy to score drugs.

He still thinks Kmart did him wrong, but in the same breath he says he is grateful for another chance.

"I ain't got AIDS. I ain't got cancer. I'm not dying," Salerno said. "You tell me there's not a God."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.