Sarah Gonzales-McLinn was just 21 years old when she was sentenced to serve a minimum of 50 years in prison for murder.
Now, an attorney fighting to get that sentence overturned has come to an agreement with prosecutors: they’re asking a judge to give Gonzales-McLinn 25 years to life instead. Documents recently filed in the case indicate that there’s no known precedent for such an agreement in Kansas courts.
However, the judge’s decision on whether Gonzales-McLinn’s conviction should be overturned is still pending, and it has been for just more than a year now. If granted, prosecutors could retry the case – and the outcome of a new trial could be quite different.
Gonzales-McLinn, now 26, killed Harold “Hal” Sasko, who owned Cici’s Pizza in Lawrence, in January 2014. A jury found that Sasko’s death was in “an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner,” thereby subjecting Gonzales-McLinn to a “hard 50” years in prison before she’s eligible for parole.
During the trial, prosecutors emphasized the gory nature of the killing — Gonzales-McLinn had drugged Sasko, bound his hands and feet, cut his throat “almost through to the point of decapitation,” and then used a towel to write “Freedom” on the wall in his blood.
But it was not until years later, as the case came back to court in a last-ditch effort to have the long sentence overturned, that the public could see past media portrayals of Sasko as Gonzales-McLinn’s “roommate,” or get a clear idea of how or why she sought “Freedom” in killing Sasko and fleeing his home.
Gonzales-McLinn’s new attorney, Jonathan Sternberg, filed on her behalf a civil case alleging several issues, including that her attorney during her trial provided ineffective assistance of counsel. In multiple days of hearings in December 2019 and February 2020, several witnesses testified, including Gonzales-McLinn herself.
She shared details of her relationship with Sasko:
She had started working at Cici’s Pizza in Topeka at age 14, and Sasko became like a father figure to her. She even called him “Dad.” She graduated early from high school and moved in with Sasko at age 17, paying some rent she earned through her part-time job at an office supply store.
But Sasko started keeping a running bill for Gonzales-McLinn, which quickly amounted to thousands of dollars when he agreed to pay for a nose job that she’d wanted for a long time.
Eventually, Sasko began pressuring her for sex, Gonzales-McLinn testified. One night he got her very drunk, she relented and they had sex.
“She deeply regretted this, said it made her feel ‘disgusting,’ and wished it had not happened,” Sternberg summarized in written arguments to the court. “She told him that would not happen again. But it did happen. A few times each week, he would get her drunk and have sex with her.”
“When Movant refused to have sex with Mr. Sasko, he would act like he did not hear her and just continue. Sometimes he would hold her down while doing so.”
Sasko also wanted her to get a breast augmentation, but a surgeon refused to do the surgery because she was so young; instead, Sasko convinced her to get gluteal implants to make her buttocks larger. That was another $10,000, which he added to Gonzales-McLinn’s bill.
Gonzales-McLinn went into greater detail during her testimony, but her attorney summarized that she “was young, abused, scared, depressed, and traumatized. Mr. Sasko, 33 years her senior, took her in but then kept her in a drugged state of sexual and financial slavery for over a year from which she reasonably could not see a way out.”
Sternberg argued that this was a case of “battered woman syndrome” — a victim of domestic violence feels that the only way to escape their abuser is to kill.
But Gonzales-McLinn’s attorney during her trial, Carl Cornwell, had emphasized that a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (previously called multiple personality disorder) rendered Gonzales-McLinn incapable of forming the intent to kill Sasko with premeditation.
The expert psychologist who evaluated Gonzales-McLinn, Marilyn Hutchinson, did give that diagnosis of DID, but she also testified in more recent hearings that had Cornwell asked her to, she would have considered a battered woman defense for Gonzales-McLinn. She also said she thought the case was consistent with battered woman syndrome.
Cornwell testified in December 2020 that he had never considered that defense, though; and Hutchinson said she’s not an attorney, and it’s not her role to come up with criminal defenses.
Prosecutors had also offered Gonzales-McLinn a plea deal: if she pleaded guilty, they would agree to a sentence of 25-to-life.
But Gonzales-McLinn testified that Cornwell had convinced her that they were going to win her trial — why would she take 25 years in prison when it could be a stay in a mental health treatment facility until she got better instead? she reasoned. And she said she didn’t really understand the plea or the potential consequences of not accepting it: the hard 50 to which she was ultimately sentenced.
Had she known or thought there was a possibility she’d spend 50 years in prison, she would have considered the plea, Gonzales-McLinn said.
The latest documents
In a turn of events that’s odd by any standard based on Kansas court precedent, now Sternberg and Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez have agreed to a joint stipulation.
Prosecutors will drop their objections and stipulate to some of the arguments Sternberg raised in the civil case; Gonzales-McLinn, who also signed the document, will drop the remaining arguments; and both parties will ask the judge to resentence Gonzales-McLinn to 25 years before she could become parole-eligible, according to the agreement.
Essentially, the stipulation says that “But for counsel’s deficient advice, Movant would have accepted the State’s plea offer, which the parties would have presented to the Court and the Court would have accepted, and she would have received a lesser sentence of 25 years to life.”
The motion also addresses the unusual nature of the attorneys’ proposal.
“While there is no reported Kansas decision concerning the State and a movant settling a § 60-1507 case (a civil case of this nature) by agreeing to a sentence correction, this is procedurally proper and the Court has authority to agree to it,” it says.
A federal law would allow for an agreement to a “sentence correction,” and the Kansas Supreme Court has said that courts should give that federal law “great weight” when construing a similar state statute, according to the joint motion.
If Douglas County District Court Judge Amy Hanley approves, whether Gonzales-McLinn would actually be released from prison after 25 years would still be up to a parole board.
If Hanley denies the joint motion, the case would return to its status quo, according to the agreement — that is, waiting for Hanley to decide if Gonzales-McLinn’s conviction should be overturned and her sentence vacated. If the answer is no, Gonzales-McLinn would still be facing 50 years, though she could appeal that ruling to a higher court.
But if Hanley were to overturn Gonzales-McLinn’s conviction, a battered woman defense or any number of other legal strategies and factors could weigh into the new jury’s thought process. For instance, a new jury might convict Gonzales-McLinn of a lesser offense that would result in a shorter sentence, among any number of other possibilities.
The case is set for a hearing at 10 a.m. Tuesday, May 25. As her case currently stands, Gonzales-McLinn’s earliest possible prison release date is Feb. 1, 2064, according to Kansas Department of Corrections records.
— Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or 785-422-6363.