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Lawyers Fought Long Odds To Free Woman Who Killed Pimp

Last of two parts: Sara Kruzan’s lawyers talk about what the case meant to them

Evening Edition

Aired 8/13/14 on KPBS News.

Lawyers for Sara Kruzan said they never lost faith despite setbacks.

Ron McIntire, a Los Angeles-based partner in the law firm Perkins Coie has worked on scores of civil cases involving plane crashes, asbestos claims and personal injuries over his 27-year career. But it’s his pro bono representation of Sara Kruzan that stands out.

Sara Kruzan's lawyer Ron McIntire talks about why his law firm -- Perkins Coie -- worked on her case pro bono. July 2014.

“Two of the happiest days of my life besides the birth of my children and my marriage was the day we did her parole hearing and the parole board announced they would advocate for her to be released,” McIntire said. “The other day was when she got out.”

Kruzan, who lived in San Diego for a time when she was a child, killed her pimp G.G. Howard in Riverside 20 years ago when she was 16. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Kruzan met Howard at 11 as she walked home from school. He raped her at 13 and pushed her into prostitution, court records show. Howard’s entrance into Kruzan’s life followed years of abuse at the hands of her mother and her mother’s boyfriends.

Perkins Coie took on the Kruzan case in 2007.

“I felt sort of an instant connection to her story and I know I’m not the only one,” Melora Garrison said, who was a new Perkins Coie associate at the time. “Her life was a series of somewhat horrific events. It seemed very clear to me that this pimp had targeted her, taken advantage of her and groomed her for prostitution, put her out on the streets and when she finally snapped, she was sentenced to her entire life in prison and would never have the opportunity to come before a parole board.”

Sara Kruzan's lawyer Melora Garrison explains the hurdles encountered during the seven-year effort to win her freedom. July 2014.

Garrison was one of six lawyers Perkins Coie assembled to work on the case, one of whom was a former district attorney in Washington. The lawyers’ first meeting with Kruzan at the women’s prison in Chowchilla lasted five hours.

“There was a lot of crying because I have daughters of my own who were her age at the time of her crime and thought but for other circumstances, they could be her,” McIntire said.

As they left the prison, Garrison said the stakes of the case hit her.

“I had this moment of crushing anxiety,” Garrison said. “What if we invest all this time and resources and get her hopes up, up and up, and we don’t get her out. “

Optimism quickly replaced fear. Even though Kruzan was sentenced to life in prison in 1995, McIntire says the law allowed the court to give her the possibility of parole because she was a minor.

“The sentencing error (not allowing parole) was pretty egregious and no one in the courtroom knew what the law was given her age,” McIntire said.

The lawyers also believed they had grounds for a new trial.

During Kruzan’s original trial, prosecutors put on seven witnesses over two days. Garrison says Kruzan’s defense lawyer never introduced evidence about the effects of her abusive childhood, nor that she had been a victim of violence by her pimp. Kruzan was the only person he put on the stand, and she was medicated when she testified.

“The jury had no idea, other than a single mention of one night of prostitution, that she had been trafficked by this man,” Garrison said. “It’s a little cynical: But maybe if it had happened somewhere else? Maybe if she had looked different? There was a lot of prejudice. It was a different time and a different place and a different atmosphere.”

Kruzan received thousands of letters from supporters during her two decades behind bars.

McIntire says Kruzan’s case resonated with people because of her youth at the time of the crime and her circumstances.

“The whole idea of her being used in sex trafficking and then turning on the person who was responsible for that,” McIntire said. “People thought there was a certain justice to that and that she shouldn’t face the same kind of punishment.”

If the crime were committed today, the lawyers said it’s likely Kruzan’s case would be handled differently because of heightened awareness of child sex trafficking.

As it was, efforts to get the case reopened were rejected by the Riverside trial court and appeals court in the ensuing seven years. A clemency petition to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger failed, but he did commute her sentence to life with the possibility of parole. The California Supreme Court returned the case to Riverside.

The failures never hampered the attorneys' faith.

“We would all regroup,” Garrison said. “We would all strategize. Sara led us in that. Sometimes she was our motivator. She would help us have more faith and be more optimistic.”

Garrison said the experience changed her immensely.

“As a lawyer, you think you either do good work and get the result that you want, or you don’t,” she said. ““I came to learn that this constant optimism and belief was actually really important to the outcome. No matter how many failures we went through, we ultimately got her out of prison.”

In the end, Kruzan’s lawyers struck a deal with Riverside prosecutors to reduce her first-degree-murder conviction to second-degree murder. She was freed last year for time served.

For Garrison, Kruzan’s case epitomized what she had always thought being a lawyer meant.

“This case is just a really good example of how supremely important it is for lawyers to do public-interest, pro bono work, not only for the personal gratification but the ability to effect change where it’s needed,” she said.

All told, Perkins Coie reports they donated $800,000 in legal services and spent $120,000 of their own money to win freedom for Kruzan. McIntire said the experience made him even more cynical about the criminal justice system.

“If a fraction of that had been put in at the front end where she was originally tried, if there had been a degree of reasonableness, then she would have ended up in the same place we ended up with much less having been wasted,” McIntire said.

In the wake of the Kruzan case, McIntire said he and Garrison have received numerous letters from other inmates seeking their help.

“There are many, many other people out there in her same situation,” McIntire said. “There just aren’t the resources to devote to give justice to all of them.”

Now that Kruzan is free and making plans to be a social worker, the lawyers remain connected to her.

“It’s fatherly concern,” McIntire said. “She’s kind of like one of my own children. I want her to make the right decisions and have a good life.”

In the first part of this two-part story, Kruzan reflected on her past and spoke about her plans for her future.

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