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KPBS Midday Edition

Clemency Urged For Woman Who Killed Pimp

Earlier this year, prosecutors agreed to reduce Sara Kruzan’s first-degree murder charge to second-degree, which made her eligible for parole.
Clemency Urged For Woman Who Killed Pimp
Sara Kruzan has spent more than half her life in a Calif. prison for killing her pimp. Kruzan’s San Diego relatives and local advocates are pressing Gov. Jerry Brown to grant her clemency in a case they call an embarrassment to the criminal-justice system.

CAVANAUGH: And you're listening to KPBS Midday Edition. I'd like to welcome my guests, Ann Rogan is Sara Kruzan's aunt. Thanks for being on the program. ROGAN: Well, thank you for allowing me to be on your program. CAVANAUGH: And Justin brooks is with us, that is, he's director of the California innocence project, at California western school of law. Hello. BROOKS: Hi, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: Ann, how close were you and Sara when she was a teenager? Did you know that the sex trafficking was happening to her? ROGAN: No. I didn't know that she was being trafficked. I had no clue. And also back in 1993, 1994, the word sex trafficking didn't even exist. I knew there were problems in their home because I would of -- oftentimes I would receive a phone call from Sara saying that, you know, something crazy was going on at her house with her mother, and I would come down and pick her up, and she would spend some time with me. But I had no clue about the sex trafficking. CAVANAUGH: Justin, what about the fact that Sara was a victim of child sex traffic something is that fact taken into consideration now by prosecutors when these kids commit other crimes? BROOKS: Well, mitigation evidence, a lot of that evidence is typically used in the sentencing process. For example, in a death penalty case, that kind of evidence can take up longer take in proceedings and the guilt/innocence phase. But lawyers do sometimes make decisions not to bring in evident like that during the trial and that's why I think it's an up-hill battle, these kinds of cases. The Supreme Court has set very difficult standards to figure out whether a lawyer is ineffective or not. And there's not a lot of second guessing of attorneys' decisions. I just finished arguing a case in the seventh circuit where my client was sentenced to death on at a get plea by a defense attorney who did no investigation at all, pled her straight up, and got the death peptide as the result of a plea bargain. So there certainly was no bargain there. And I've been litigating that case for 15 years and haven't been able to get any success in it. CAVANAUGH: And as was said in the feature by Amita, and as you just said, there was -- the term sex trafficking wasn't even something that we used in 19 norwhen Sara was tried for murder. Did any elements of what she had been through as a child either come into or trial or into her sentencing at that time? ROGAN: No, not to my knowledge. As a matter of fact, I remember the headline from back in 1994. And it said teen prostitute kills pimp. And that did not take into consideration the fact that this person was a 30-something year-old man who had first molested Sara at age 11 and then put her out on the street at age 13, raped her and put her out on the street at age 13. None was that was included in the article. CAVANAUGH: Justin brooks, Sarah's sense as we said has all right been commuted from life without parole, she is now serving 25 to life. Isn't that already pretty rare? BROOKS: That is rare. Any type of clemency action by the governor is very rare. It's sort of the end of the line where you've run out of other legal options. But you do see it in cases like battered wife syndrome cases, in cases where there's a lot of sympathy toward the defendant. It doesn't necessarily indicate that this person is innocent, but the sense at least by the governor's office that they shouldn't have received the sentence they received. CAVANAUGH: And how likely is it that Sara might get a new trial, and you can broaden that, if you'd like to how likely is it that anybody gets a new trial when new evidence or mitigation is found? BROOKS: New trials are very difficult to obgain. You have the direct appeal process that she's already bullpen through, and from that they look at were there mistakes made at trial. And then all that's left is the habeas process, and you're going to bring in evidence outside of that transcript and say, look at all this. There's a lot of evidence that indicates she should get a new trial. And without knowing all the facts of this case, if the claim is based on ineffective assistance of counsel, it's very difficult. If there's any strategic reasons that the attorney did the things that he did, then the Court is going to deny it. And even if you can prove that the attorney was not competent, you also have to get past the second prong which is to say and it would have made a difference had another attorney tried the case. And that for me is always the kicker, it's the worst part of the rule because you can actually show that someone had incompetent representation and the Court can still say, yeah, but we think that even if a good lawyer tried this case, it would have been the same result. CAVANAUGH: Ann, what kind of results are you getting in your efforts to get Sara a new trial? ROGAN: Well, the support has been global. We have people all over the world that are so shocked and amazed at this case that they have signed petitions, they have -- Elizabeth O'Hara is a photographer out of northern California had has a photo petition, and she has Amiscellaneoused quite a few photograph it is from different people all over the world that want to get Sara out. You have different organizations that are backing the effort to get Sara out, such as CAS, you have Nikki Junker's organization, also Phil sinnadilla who has an organization, stop slavery 2012. And Rachel Lloyd has also expressed support for -- she's the founder and executive director of gyms. And she also has expressed support for Sara getting out. So it's become global. CAVANAUGH: This case is before the California Supreme Court. I think it probably is up on as you said a habeas petition. What, if any role, could governor brown have in this, Justin? Could he commute the sentence entirely? BROOKS: Sure. And that's where the political process comes in. I mean, it's great to get all that support in a case, but I don't know if the Courts are that responsive to that. You hope the Courts hear about things in the news, and take interest in the story you want to put forward in your case, but the Courts aren't really set up to respond to political actions. The governor is. And that's why the clemency process, the first time through, at least with this case, was ultimately successful, at least in getting the sentence reduced. CAVANAUGH: It sounds from the feature that we heard that Sara went into prison, she was a really damaged and angry teenager. What is she like now? ROGAN: Well, she's a wonderful woman. And you have to consider, of course, where she has been, she's been incarcerated the fast 17-plus years, and spite of that, in spite of not having hope of ever getting out she has continued her education, she has gone through counseling, and she's also mentoring and counseling those young girls that are coming through at 18 and 19 into the prison system and have similar backgrounds as she has. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What would she like to do with her life if she's released? ROGAN: Yes, we've talked about it quite often. And the first thing she wants to do is connect with family. And she also will need to get acclimated. I mean, she's been in since she was 16. So we've talked about that process and what she would need to do. She also would like to in some way help and assist other young girls that have gone through what she has gone through. CAVANAUGH: Justin, if the California Supreme Court does not order a new trial in the case of Sara Kruzan, what are her legal options? ROGAN: Well, again, going back to the governor's office, going to Jerry Brown with another clemency petition. I don't know what her parole eligibility is, or when that would occur, but the depressing news is there is we've got cases with strong evidence of innocence that get repeatedly denied in the parole process. This is another 1 of the reasons why California prisons are overcrowded, and most of our budget is going to support them because the parole board is not paroling people who should be paroled. So I hear sad stories like this every day where an inmate has really turn there'd life around, doing a lot of good things with no risk to society if released, and yet still they get denied parole E. CAVANAUGH: From my calculation, I don't know if this is correct or not, Sara might have another eight years in before she was first up for parole; is that right? ROGAN: Well, I'm not sure about that. I'm not sure how they calculate the opportunity for parole as to how many years you have to do. I would have to defer to her attorneys on that one. CAVANAUGH: Okay. ROGAN: I really don't know. BROOKS: The depressing thing on that is a lot of attorneys will talk about your first parole date, and then people take deals thinking they're going to get out on these first parole dates, and it's pretty much unheard of. CAVANAUGH: Right. BROOKS: So you go for your first parole date, you get a whole lot of ideas about programming, and now the parole boards are given huge set-offs where you may have to wait years before you get a second parole date. CAVANAUGH: I do want to let everyone know, if you want to learn more about this, we have links on our website at KPBS.org, the stories about Sara Kruzan. BROOKS: Thank you, and good luck, Ann. ROGAN: Thank you.

One of the first things Sara Kruzan did when she entered prison at 16 was to look up the words "moral" and "scruples." The judge in her murder trial had told her she had none.

Efforts are underway in San Diego and across the state on behalf of a Riverside woman serving 25 to life for murder
GuestsAnn Rogan, Sara Kruzan's aunt Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law.
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“I had no idea what moral was," Kruzan said. "I did not know what scruples meant.”

And really, Sara’s defenders argue, how could she?

Sara grew up in Riverside amid stress and chaos. Her mother admitted bashing Sara’s head on the floor. Sara was placed in foster care for a time after bruises were discovered. Sara was molested for the first time at age 5 by her mom’s boyfriend. Successive boyfriends did the same, court documents show.

In a five-year-old YouTube clip, Sara describes the one bright spot in her life:

“In school, I excelled," she said. "I was on the honor roll, the principal’s honor roll. I was an overachiever. I ran track. I ran for student body president.”

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But her love for school could not save her. Her mother kicked her out when she was 11. Sara was hospitalized for attempted suicide.

That’s also when a well-known pimp George Gilbert Howard, or G.G., befriended her.

“He was like a father figure. G.G. was there and he would talk to me and take me out and give me all these lavish gifts and do all these things for free," she said.

At 13, Sara was raped on school grounds by three neighborhood boys. Then, G.G. forced Sara into prostitution.

“He had sex with me when I was 13 ... and he uses his manhood to hurt," she said.

She went to live with her grandmother in San Diego when she was 15. At 16, she began seeing a boy whose ex-con uncle ordered her to kill G.G. Her aunt, Anne Rogan, said the order was issued with a threat.

“And this guy said to her, 'well I want you to get G.G.’s money and I want you to shoot him and if you don’t do this, I’m going to kill your mother'; and I believe he threatened her boyfriend at the time," Rogan said.

Sara went to a motel room in Riverside with G.G. Her aunt said once inside the room, Sara felt trapped and desperate.

"Apparently when he started to pull out a sex toy, that is when she shot him. There was a fear that gripped her of all the abuse and that’s when she shot him.”

Sara took his money too. Her supporters say she never stood a chance in court.

Sara’s defense lawyer David Gunn urged the 16-year-old to reject a plea offer that would have sent her to prison for 30 years, with time off for good behavior. She took his advice and the case went to trial.

The government put on seven witnesses over two days. Gunn, now a judge, never called an expert witness to discuss impacts of her horrific childhood, or her forced prostitution.

In fact, the only witness the defense called was Sara.

But her appeals attorneys say 17-year-old Sara was unprepared. She was depressed and medicated. She was unable to joust with a skilled prosecutor.

Sara’s aunt says her niece never gave her side.

"She didn’t go into any of what happened to her and I don’t know why," Rogan said. "All I can tell you is that she has this legal team and they went back and found all these records: How she tried to commit suicide at 11; how she tried again at 13; how she was gang-raped. There are police reports.”

In 1994, Sara was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole.

“She was a black girl from the hood," said Nikki Junker. She directs "With More Than A Purpose," a San Diego group which advocates for sex trafficking victims. "Nobody cared.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted Kruzan’s sentence to 25 years to life, with the possibility of parole. Sara’s appellate lawyers want the California Supreme Court to now set her free, or grant her a retrial.

The Riverside County DA’s office says it is confident in its actions at trial, and in the jury’s verdict.

Kruzan has earned a bachelor’s degree in science in prison. She lives in the honor dorm at the women’s prison in Chowchilla.

Kruzan said she sorry she took G.G.’s life.

“I definitely deserve punishment," she said. "You don’t just take someone’s life and think that’s OK.”

But she wants a shot at helping others on the outside.

“I believe I could set a positive example. I am very determined to show that no matter what you have done or where you have come from or what you have experienced in life, it’s up to you to change.”