Governor Gavin Newsom on Friday pardoned Sara Kruzan, whose murder conviction at age 17 for killing a man who sex-trafficked her has become a symbol of a flawed justice system.
Tried as an adult for a crime she committed when she was 16, Kruzan was sentenced in 1995 to life in prison for the murder of George Howard in a Riverside motel room. His prison sentence was later commuted by the governor at the time. Arnold Schwarzenegger at 25 with the possibility of parole. By the time she was released two years later, in 2013, she had already served nearly two decades behind bars.
Kruzan was among nearly three dozen people granted the governor’s pardon this week, a list that included Henry Pachnowski, 82, born to Polish parents who were later imprisoned in Nazi labor camps during World War II .
Kruzan, when contacted by The Times on Saturday, recalled being overcome with a sense of relief when she heard of the governor’s decision, “letting go of those invisible shackles that I didn’t know were there. ‘they were still scratched in (me)’.
Kruzan hopes forgiveness will help her heal from her traumatic past as she focuses on being a mother to her young daughter. But she also hopes her case “will have a ripple effect for others who identify with different elements of what I went through.”
Since her release from prison, she has become a national advocate for changing the way the criminal justice system treats children and for reforming laws that ignore trafficking abuse when it comes to sentencing.
The system, she said, does not have the ability to identify “complex and aggravated trauma, and that’s not just me, because anyone who has a direct impact on the system has been hit by a trauma. ”
“Do I want to move forward with love? Or do I want to move forward with fear, anger and pain? added Kruzan, who released her memoir, “I Cried to Dream Again,” earlier this year.
“Now I want to move forward in love. And it takes a lot of courage to do that.
In her letter of pardon, Newsom wrote that Kruzan had “provided evidence that she was leading a righteous life and had demonstrated her ability to restore civic rights and responsibilities.”
“Since then, Ms. Kruzan has transformed her life and dedicated herself to community service,” he wrote. “This act of leniency for Ms. Kruzan does not minimize or condone her conduct or the harm she has caused. This acknowledges the work she has since done to transform herself.
Kruzan was 16 when she killed Howard, whom she knew as “GG” and who she says sexually assaulted her and groomed her for sex work from the age of 11, and kicked her out two years later. The case against her was troubled from the start, the lawyers say, as the presiding judge ordered that she be tried as an adult and barred her lawyer from presenting evidence at the Howard abuse trial. .
She served 18 years until Newsom’s predecessor, then governor. Jerry Brown authorized his release in 2013.
By then, Kruzan had become a rallying cry for state lawmakers and reform groups focused on reducing what they saw as cruel and wrongful life sentences for those who committed their crimes. as minors.
Lenore Anderson, founder of Californians for Safety and Justice, applauded the pardon but added that “it is frankly outrageous that she was given the term in the first place, given the long history of abuse and trafficking “.
“Sara is one of thousands of young people who are exploited, sexually and commercially, who find themselves in the shoes of the accused when it is more than clear that the extreme abuse they suffered is what lies behind the crime,” she said.
Reform of the criminal justice system is long overdue, she said, particularly in relation to “the extreme traumatic stress and realities of violence and abuse that many girls suffer from”.
Anderson said he has seen progress in recent laws passed in states such as California and New York that provide more protections for victims of sexual and physical abuse charged with crimes. But, she said, organizations working with trafficked people are still “woefully under-resourced”.
Dolores Canales, of the advocacy group California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, said she was encouraged by Newsom’s decision but feared it was distracting from deep flaws in how the justice system treats child victims. of sexual abuse. Riverside County, she said, has not admitted liability.
“Yes, society says it, everyone says it, but the system has never been held accountable,” said Canales, who knew Kruzan shortly after his release from prison.
Kruzan’s pro bono legal team asked the Riverside County District Attorney’s office to review the case and possibly ask the court to overturn his conviction.
Kruzan was among 17 pardons announced Friday, many of which were for people convicted at a young age, committing drug-related crimes or both.
A pardon does not erase or erase a conviction, the governor’s office said, but can help mitigate the long-term impact on a person’s life. Three others he pardoned, for example, face deportation because of their criminal backgrounds, including one who has already been deported.
Newsom also commuted the sentences of 15 current inmates and granted a reprieve to one inmate who poses a high medical risk.
Commutations give inmates the opportunity to appear before a parole board which will decide if they are fit for release.
The Secretary of State for Corrections recommended one of the commutations, of inmate Darnell Green, based on Green’s exceptional conduct in prison after he was originally convicted of a 1997 armed robbery in which no one was ‘was injured. Two others whose sentences were commuted worked as inmate firefighters.
Newsom also pardoned Pachnowski, who now lives in Maryland. He pleaded guilty in 1967 in Orange County to a misdemeanor charge of soliciting an obscene act and was sentenced to 10 days in jail and three years probation.
In his request for clemency, Pachnowski said he was having consensual “intimacy” with another man in a car in a deserted industrial area when they were caught by a security guard who “said we went to against God and nature”.
He said he pleaded guilty to avoid prosecution for a more serious charge of “sexual perversion”.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.