A 16-year-old child-prostitute who was sentenced to life without parole for killing her pimp is being freed at the age of 35.
Sara Kruzan’s case was championed by Democratic state Senator Leland Yee, who used it in his fight to reform human trafficking laws and the treatment of juveniles by the criminal justice system. Both issues are the subjects of global movements.
Kruzan was an abused 11-year-old in Riverside when she met George Gilbert Howard. Kruzan said he raped her and two years later she was working as a prostitute for him. In 1994, she shot him in the neck at close range, took $1,500 from his wallet and left. She was quickly caught and told authorities her boyfriend ordered her to do it.
Instead of being tried in the juvenile justice system, she was found guilty of first-degree murder in an adult court and sentenced to life imprisonment without a chance of parole in May 1995. Her lawyers asked the California Supreme Court for a new trial in 2010. But the case was sent back to the Riverside Superior Court, instead, and the new trial was denied there.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger granted Kruzan clemency in January 2011, commuting her sentence to 25 years with the possibility of parole.
The next year, lawmakers passed legislation introduced by Yee, which lets courts review life without parole sentences for juveniles.
Supporters argued that sentencing juveniles to life terms without a chance for review was outside international law and norms. It ignored neuroscience and accepted studies of adolescence about the undeveloped state of juvenile impulse control and critical thinking, which indicate kids are more readily rehabilitated. Opponents of the law said almost all of the people affected by it were 16- and 17-year-olds guilty of heinous crimes, first-degree murder with one or more special circumstances, and would have a shot at parole simply by showing remorse.
In July 2012, the California Supreme Court responded favorably to a habeas corpus petition and kicked the case back to the lower court again, but this time with a directive for a new hearing that could include the battered partner defense Kruzan was denied in her original trial. The Riverside district attorney agreed to accept a second-degree murder conviction and a new sentence of 15 years to life. Riverside Superior Court Judge Gary Tranbarger made it official in January and Kruzan was immediately eligible for parole.
The parole board was amenable, as was Governor Jerry Brown, so she’ll be leaving the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla soon.