Her attorney and the prosecutor had come to an unusual agreement
Sarah Gonzales-McLinn will spend about 18 more years behind bars, minimum, for the 2014 murder of Harold “Hal” Sasko.
There’s now a chance she could get paroled after 25 years instead of 50, but as part of a plea-like agreement, she has given up most of her rights to appeal. She won’t have a new trial — and there’s no chance of convincing a jury that she had killed to escape an abusive situation, as some advocates had hoped.
As the Times reported, Gonzales-McLinn was just 14 when she first met Sasko. He became like a father figure to her, and at 17, she moved in with him. She testified in hearings long after she was sentenced to a minimum of 50 years in prison that he had “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,” as her attorney wrote in court documents.
“What may have looked like the kind actions of a Christian man on the outside were actually the manipulative actions of a grown man, preying on the vulnerabilities of a very young, very impressionable girl behind closed doors,” Gonzales-McLinn’s mother, Michelle Gonzales, told the judge Tuesday.
But the legal issue at the core of her minimum prison sentence being cut by half Tuesday was that Gonzales-McLinn said her trial attorney had convinced her that they were going to win. She believed she didn’t need to worry about a 50-year sentence. Why take the plea prosecutors had offered, 25 years to life in prison, when she might be able to go to a mental health treatment facility until she “got better” instead?
In exchange for the new agreement with prosecutors — which mirrors the plea offer she said she would have taken if she’d understood the alternative possibility — Gonzales-McLinn also dropped her claim that her trial attorney should have pursued a “battered woman syndrome” defense.
Douglas County District Court Judge Amy Hanley asked Gonzales-McLinn typical questions asked of defendants who are about to agree to a plea — such as whether she fully understood what it all meant, whether she’d had enough time to consider the decision and whether her attorney had answered any questions she had. After affirming all of those things, the judge took about a 15-minute recess to consider her decision.
Hanley said she was persuaded by the case law that Gonzales-McLinn’s appellate attorney, Jonathan Sternberg, and District Attorney Suzanne Valdez had supplied, and she believed she did have the authority to allow the agreement to move forward.
Additionally, the judge said, she was inclined to go with the agreement that would effectively end the case, rather than potentially proceed to another appeal, whether she ruled Gonzales-McLinn should get a new trial or not. That process would likely take years to resolve.
“I don’t believe that justice would be served by me insisting that the decision be left in my hands with regard to whether or not there was ineffective assistance of counsel when no matter what I decide, that decision wouldn’t be final,” Hanley said. “I am persuaded here by the fact that all involved are asking me for this result.”
After Hanley made her ruling, Gonzales-McLinn’s sentence was vacated, and the case proceeded with statements from loved ones on both sides.
Gonzales-McLinn was the last to address the judge from behind the courtroom lectern.
“I want to start by saying there will never be words to describe what I feel because of what happened,” Gonzales-McLinn began, pausing for a moment to maintain her composure.
She said that when she moved into Sasko’s house, she never anticipated the things that would occur; she was young and didn’t know how to handle adult situations.
“The weight of what happened is something that I will carry for the rest of my life, and my heart aches at the thought of how the ripple effect of pain has spread to many,” she said.
Gonzales-McLinn said she wished she knew how to handle her feelings of shame and confusion, and what she believed at that time: “I was alone. No one cared. My family wouldn’t want me. No one would want me. There was no help for me. There was no way out.
“The lies I believed scrambled my thoughts and caused a chain reaction of suffering,” she continued, saying that drugs and alcohol she’d been provided further clouded her judgment. She said she wished her efforts to reach out to doctors and mental health professionals had been fruitful.
“I wish with every fiber of my being that things were different, that I could have known what I know now and seen through the lies, like I can see so clearly now,” Gonzales-McLinn told the judge. “I wish I could’ve been the woman that God intended me to be. I can’t go back and change things even though God knows I would, if I could.
“I can say that I’m committed to doing better and being better,” she continued. “I have grown up these past seven years, and searched and read and learned anything I could, and looked for myself and who I am striving to be as a woman instead of that young girl. I have been committed to growth and passing the message to other women in hopes that they, too, won’t be lost in untruths.”
Assistant District Attorney Emma Halling read aloud a letter from Sasko’s daughter, who was 17 at the time he was killed. At times, the letter addressed Gonzales-McLinn directly.
“Do you know who I am or know my story? I doubt it. Most of the attention is around Sarah and her story,” Halling read. “That’s why I write this, to be heard and share my side of the story for once.”
She wrote that Gonzales-McLinn had taken “so much more than my father away from me,” describing years of pain and sadness, and moments that she would never get to experience with her father. He was “not the man that you painted him to be, and that the media now sees him as,” she wrote.
“To make matters worse, every article blog or media post is focused on you and your well-being, Sarah,” Halling read from the letter. “The media doesn’t seem to care about the giving and generous man you murdered or his only child, full of sadness and anger.”
Another member of Sasko’s family wrote a letter, in which he expressed annoyance with the legal system. Halling read it aloud, as well.
He wrote that “Sarah and her family didn’t know the system.” When detectives tracked Gonzales-McLinn down in Florida after the murder and told her that “they just wanted to understand what happened and why, and that they were on her side, she fell for it and couldn’t stop telling her side of the story.” He thought from watching the trial that Gonzales-McLinn’s trial attorney didn’t care about her.
Gonzales, Sarah’s mother, told the judge that “he broke her.”
“Abusers like Mr. Sasko do not wear a sign around their neck, alerting the community of who they really are — a monster capable of unleashing unthinkable force behind closed doors. Quite the opposite,” Gonzales said.
Another woman spoke on Gonzales-McLinn’s behalf, raising concerns about the settlement agreement. She said they were concerned about the many questions that were going unanswered — “namely, what was going on in that house?”
She said this agreement would shorten the time until Gonzales-McLinn is eligible for parole, but there were no guarantees that she would get out, despite that she had endured trauma at multiple points throughout her life. Twenty-five years would come, then 30, “and she remains in prison and she finally realizes that we were all, as a society, her abusers.”
The DA’s office sent out a news release shortly after the hearing concluded.
“The District Attorney’s Office is committed to justice for victims and defendants. We are grateful that the Sasko family will not have to endure a retrial and for the closure this settlement brings to all the parties,” Valdez said in the release. “This new sentence represents the offer Ms. Gonzales-McLinn would have accepted had she had effective trial counsel. She now will be eligible for parole at age 45, instead of 70.”
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.