Valdez, Sternberg: Why the Douglas County DA and a defense attorney took an extraordinary step in Sarah Gonzales-McLinn’s murder case (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jonathan Sternberg is an appellate lawyer representing businesses and individuals in civil and criminal appeals and related matters. Suzanne Valdez is Douglas County district attorney.

The case of Sarah Gonzales-McLinn has attracted attention and conjecture both lurid and compassionate.

The then-19-year-old who admitted to killing in 2014 an older man with whom she lived has been fodder for newspaper columnists, bloggers, podcasters and would-be authors. Amid all this attention have come self-described “advocates” who think they know what is best for the young woman who, until recently, was serving 50 years to life in prison.

As Douglas County district attorney and Gonzales-McLinn’s post-conviction counsel, we are authorities on the legal intricacies of this tragic, complicated case.

In May, after months of research and negotiation, we reached a settlement that reduced her mandatory prison time by half. After being fully advised of all options, Gonzales-McLinn accepted. Because this case is closed, we ethically can address misconceptions that have arisen from a misguided narrative based on supposition and speculation.

All of this conjecture has led us — attorneys from opposing sides — to speak out together publicly here.

Let us be clear on two important things: Because of our efforts, this young woman can apply for parole at age 45 instead of 70. And, no, a battered woman syndrome defense wouldn’t be a Get Out of Jail Free card.

Here are the basics of Gonzales-McLinn’s case:

Gonzales-McLinn was convicted in 2015 of first-degree murder in the killing of Harold “Hal” Sasko and received a Hard 50 sentence. Before trial, then-District Attorney Charles Branson offered Gonzales-McLinn’s attorney, Carl Cornwell, a plea deal in which the state would not seek the Hard 50 if Gonzales-McLinn pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and agreed not to ask for a shorter sentence than the default Hard 25 sentence provided by law. Gonzales-McLinn ultimately rejected this offer, and the case proceeded to a jury trial.

In 2019, Gonzales-McLinn filed a petition under K.S.A. 60-1507, which permits a convicted defendant to seek a new trial on the basis of allegations that her trial or sentence violated her constitutional rights. The state opposed the petition, which argued Gonzales-McLinn was entitled to a new trial for five reasons. District Judge Amy Hanley summarily denied three reasons but heard evidence and argument on Gonzales-McLinn’s remaining claims in December 2019 and February 2020.

The first was that Gonzales-McLinn’s trial counsel was ineffective because he did not fully advise her regarding the Hard 25 offer, which she would have accepted had he done so. The second claim was that her trial counsel was ineffective for pursuing a defense of mental disease or defect because of dissociative identity disorder rather than battered women’s syndrome. The state opposed both claims.

When the new district attorney administration began in January and while these claims still were pending, we negotiated the settlement. In it, the state conceded that Gonzales-McLinn’s trial counsel was ineffective for failing to adequately advise her about the plea offer. In exchange, Gonzales-McLinn dropped her remaining claim.

Both parties stipulated that appropriate relief for this claim was to resentence Gonzales-McLinn as though she had accepted the initial plea offer. Judge Hanley personally questioned Gonzales-McLinn about the settlement and then approved it on May 25, 2021.

Mackenzie Clark / The Lawrence Times Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez addresses the judge during a hearing for Sarah Gonzales-McLinn on May 25, 2021.

Why did we take this extraordinary step to negotiate while the judge’s decision was pending?

From the prosecutor’s view, this case was troubling. Although no evidence was presented during the criminal trial to support Gonzales-McLinn’s post-conviction statements about abuse, she deserved mercy. The D.A.’s office conceded she had a distressing past and a disturbed mind and may have suffered abuse or exploitation. The new sentence represents the offer Gonzales-McLinn would have accepted had she had effective trial counsel.

From the view of her post-conviction attorney, Gonzales-McLinn had raised strong points in the habeas corpus case, but so many possibilities hung in the balance, in the judge’s hands and in future appellate courts’ hands. Most post-conviction relief cases, even strong ones like this, are unsuccessful. There remained a very real risk that despite the strength of our case, Gonzales-McLinn ultimately would remain with a Hard 50 sentence.

Settlements are compromises based on the strength of the case, legal expertise and a consideration of possible outcomes. We do not settle cases because we’re giving up or looking for an easy way out. For Gonzales-McLinn, this was the only way to guarantee a better outcome. She is now eligible for parole much sooner — a timeframe one journalist referred to as “a lifetime of difference.”

Not everyone is satisfied with the resolution of this complex and upsetting case. Still, as attorneys, we are obligated to advocate zealously on behalf of clients — whether we represent the state or a defendant/petitioner.

And there is a difference between zealous advocacy and zealotry. Zealous advocacy relies on facts that are supported by testimony, evidence and arguments that can be admitted in a court of law. Zealotry relies almost solely on zeal.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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