by Samir Goswami
On May 11, 1995, a California jury convicted a 16-year-old girl for fatally shooting her pimp and trafficker, George Gilbert Howard. Sara Kruzan was locked in a hotel room with Howard, who was preparing to rape her, when she shot him, took his money, and fled.
Howard was 31 years old when he began abusing an 11-year-old Sara. For the next five years he repeatedly sexually, physically and verbally assaulted and controlled her. By the time she turned 13, he had finished grooming her for sale to other men.
After the murder—and three years of brainwashing, violence, and commercial rape—Sara, a teenager, was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Today, at the age of 32, she is still sitting in a state prison in Chowchilla, Calif.
Now national attention is focused on California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a fervent national advocacy campaign to free her. Since her incarceration 15 years ago, Sara has filed numerous court petitions to review her case that detail how her right to due process had been violated during her trial, and the sentencing guidelines that resulted in her lifetime imprisonment were misinformed. These petitions, save one that is still pending, have been denied. Now, she is turning to Governor Schwarzenegger with hopes of clemency.
Despite the supposed political risks, I predict that Governor Schwarzenegger will grant Sara Kruzan clemency. For the first time in sixteen years, this January Sara will celebrate her upcoming 33rd birthday outside her California prison walls.
The supposed political pitfall for sitting Governors who aspire to show mercy to violent offenders is part of modern-day partisan folklore. When Mike Huckabee ran for the Republican nomination for U.S. President in 2008, many media pundits predicted that his Republican opponents would compare him to Michael Dukakis to doom his campaign. While Governor of Arkansas, Huckabee had approved a record number of clemency petitions.
Thirty-two years prior, in 1976, then Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts supported a prison furlough program that allowed the conditional release of Willie Horton who was convicted of murder and was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Horton then raped a woman while free on furlough.
Dukakis’ defeat by George Bush Sr. during the 1988 presidential campaign is credited in part to his opponents highlighting his support for the program that led to the release of Willie Horton.
Now in 2010, imagine the power that Governor Schwarzenegger has to consider the facts of this case and grant Sara her freedom. Also imagine all the politics, compromises and deal-making that inform every decision made by a state’s chief executive—the political considerations of one’s own future weighed against the remarkable power to grant someone their freedom. Many of us would like to think that if we had that power, we would shed all political pretenses and make a simple choice based on the facts of the case: We would choose to free Sara.
However, governance has devolved into a narcissistic focus on personal progress as opposed to a constant effort for the public good. Before embarking on a strenuous political journey, would-be elected officials may have had moments where they sought office primarily to gain the ability to help people. These moments may have even been the purest of their political careers. A constantly cycling political system where re-election is paramount and the primary focus is on amassing personal political capital and influence often makes that moment a distant memory. If Mr. Schwarzenegger ever had that moment of purity when he decided to run for Governor of California, in his waning days of elected office he now has a chance to redeem it.
And I think he will.
When Governor Schwarzenegger decides to grant clemency, he can point to specific laws by which Sara can be released for time served. One California Penal Code Section details the preconditions that need to be met for the Governor to grant clemency: “During the period of rehabilitation the person shall live an honest and upright life, shall conduct himself or herself with sobriety and industry, shall exhibit a good moral character, and shall conform to and obey the laws of the land.”
Sara has exceeded these requirements. During her incarceration she has completed vocational training classes, led and formed committees that educate and mentor youth prisoners to prepare them for release, held various employment positions and won accolades and commendations from her prison guards, and has publicly admitted that what she did was wrong.
Furthermore, in a petition filed this summer on Sara’s behalf, her lawyers provided substantial evidence that Sara’s trial proceedings and the court’s understanding of sentencing guidelines were both flawed, resulting in an unjust sentence of life without parole. During her trial, no evidence or expert testimony was provided to show context to the jury about the impact that physical and sexual abuse—both before and after she was trafficked—had on her mental state at the time of the shooting.
Had Sara’s case been tried today, the defense counsel would be quick to highlight this incredibly relevant information.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that the average age of entry into prostitution is twelve years old. Law enforcement officials now better understand how pimps use violence and coercion to groom and recruit teenagers into prostitution. Today, Schwarzenegger’s state has prioritized the arrest and prosecution of such predators: He can cite the efforts of the Oakland Police Department as they attempt to arrest the pimps and traffickers who target vulnerable young girls like Sara, and use subtle coercion and violence to keep them on the market. He can cite the work of the District Attorney’s Office in Alameda County that has organized a task force that treats prostituted teens as victims instead of criminals, identifying and protecting them as well as offering options for recovery. This frees up law enforcement to focus resources on arresting and prosecuting the real criminals—their pimps and johns.
According to Samantha Vardaman, senior director at Shared Hope International, an organization that advocates on behalf of victims of domestic minor sex trafficking, “Under the type of trauma [Sara] was suffering from and the extreme victimization she had been under, there has to be an understanding that that is not her and she has proven to be recovered and restored and ready to live a very good life outside of jail.”
Vardaman believes that Sara did not benefit from this current knowledge about the effects of the abuse that prostituted kids experience—which means Governor Schwarzenegger has an opportunity to remedy an historic injustice.
Governor Schwarzenegger’s term expires at the end of this year and it is doubtful that his historically low poll numbers will sink any lower because he gave another chance to an abused teenager who has spent the last sixteen years in prison redeeming herself. Furthermore, according to Human Rights Watch, 81 percent of West Coast residents believe that children are redeemable and should not spend their lives in prison for crimes committed during adolescence. Granting Sara clemency will prove to be a monumental turning point in our cultural understanding and political acceptance of how the United States should treat victims of domestic minor sex trafficking and will greatly contribute to Governor Schwarzenegger’s legacy as an elected official.
The Jewish New Union Prayer Book for the Days of Awe states, “All pretense gone, naked heart revealed to the hiding self, we stand on holy ground between the day that was and the one that must be.” I believe that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will choose to free Sara Kruzan because when he looks back at his career in elected office he will feel proud that he courageously availed of a moment to shed all political pretenses and gave a young woman a chance at a life that she has been repeatedly denied but so rightfully deserves.