By Charlene Muhammad CHARLENEM
(FinalCall.com) – Sara Kruzan has spent almost two decades in a California prison for killing the man who molested her at 11, and raped and pimped her at 13.
Now she and supporters are waiting to find out if her fate will change on Sept. 18.
Paul Zellerbach, district attorney for Riverside, Calif., is expected to announce then whether she will be freed from the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla or face a new trial.
On July 20, the California Supreme Court ordered State Attorney General Kamala Harris to show why her office felt Ms. Kruzan was not a victim of domestic violence.
The Attorney General’s Office had argued Ms. Kruzan was not entitled to a domestic abuse defense but reversed its position and asked the California Supreme Court to send the case back to Riverside where it was tried.
Officials in Riverside, Calif., which denied a request for new trial in 2010, received a 60-day extension to make a decision.
“Sara was disappointed but she remains hopeful. We’re not going to stop until she’s free. I don’t understand what more they want from her. … She served her time and it’s time they stop penalizing people who have been human trafficked. Justice needs to be served here,” said Kim Deanne, Ms. Kruzan’s friend.
Ms. Kruzan, 34, murdered George Howard in a hotel room on March 10, 1994, when she was 16-years-old threatened and beaten by a friend’s uncle, according to her attorneys.
She was tried as an adult and sentenced May 10, 1995 at age 17 to a mandatory life sentence in prison, plus four years, for using a gun, without possibility of parole. On January 2, 2011, then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted her sentence to 25 years to life with the possibility of parole, citing her age and the significant abuse she suffered as reasons her sentence was excessive.
No expert witness testified in Ms. Kruzan’s defense during her trial. Jurors were not told about the prolonged sexual abuse she’d suffered, and the court’s discretion to sentence her with parole as a minor was overlooked.
Ms. Kruzan is also an example of how a domestic violence victim can flourish once free of abuse, said her lawyers. She has obtained a college degree, has lived in an honor dorm and was recognized by guards for her encouragement, positive attitude and friendship with other inmates.
“This is a waste of California’s tax dollars. Sara Kruzan is not a threat to Californians and at this point with being in prison for 18 years now, California’s run away nearly a million dollars on just keeping her incarcerated. It’s just inhumane and we need to be treating our victims better than this,” said Carrie Christie of the Free Sara Kruzan campaign.
Although Ms. Kruzan’s case was already commuted, Ms. Deanne feels the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling striking down mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles will have an impact.
“It gives other teenagers hope because Sara was at such a young age when this happened and I personally remembered one of the first things she said to me was, ‘I’m never getting out of here,’ ” Ms. Deanne said.
“For a teenager to say something like that … things happen and things change and one of the things we noted in Sara’s case when sentenced in 1994 was she was amenable to treatment. Had she gotten that treatment, she would have never done 18 years because kids change and they’re not the same people they were at 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, even 18,” she added.
Kim McGill of the Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition, is pleased the Supreme Court’s ruling is retroactive and allows immediate appeals of sentences. Nationally, nearly 2,500 inmates are serving life sentences for crimes they committed before age 18, according to the Supreme Court.
“Pennsylvania has more than 400 young people living life without parole. …We only have about 300 young people sitting with life without parole but we have thousands of young people serving sentences so long, they might as well be life without parole,” Ms. McGill said.
“They’ve 111 to life, 150 to life, 200 to life, 50 to life, 75 to life. … You won’t live to your first parole hearing,” she said.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said it is unclear how youth can challenge their cases and it could be some time before cases are commuted. Among his questions: Will they have to get their own attorneys? Will states initiate the process? What will happen in states where the numbers are very high?
An eligible person sentenced last year may have to serve a substantial amount of time but some who have served 20 years may be viewed as eligible for parole, according to Mr. Mauer. The process will be as good or bad as the parole board in any given state, he said.
“People should organize to find out what their legislature and governor are planning to do to implement this decision. Just because the Supreme Court says they have to do it doesn’t mean they’re going to start the next day. There needs to be pressure to make sure that they move forward in a timely way,” Mr. Mauer told The Final Call.
In Ms. Kruzan’s case, supporters have done just that. They have launched a Change.org petition, urging Gov. Jerry Brown to grant clemency and commute her sentence to time served. More than 21,000 supporters have signed the petition.
“Sara sent a big thank you to each one of her supporters and said whether she knows their names or not, she’s extremely thankful, appreciative and sends all of her love. And she feels that united we can free her,” Ms. Christie said.