Michelle Gonzales: Why the mother of a woman who killed her rapist isn’t happy with an ‘extraordinary’ settlement (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. Michelle Gonzales, 53, is a native Topekan and a graduate of Topeka High School.

I am the mother of Sarah Gonzales-McLinn, the 19-year-old woman who killed Hal Sasko in 2014. Sasko owned the CiCi’s Pizza restaurants in Lawrence and Topeka.

I’m writing in response to a recent opinion piece by Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez and my daughter’s post-conviction counsel, Jonathan Sternberg, in which they defended their brokering of an “extraordinary” settlement that reduced Sarah’s Hard 50 sentence to a Hard 25 to life.

They wrote: “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.”

This sounds like a good deal, but I’ve been strongly advised that in the real world there’s little to no difference between a Hard 50 and a Hard 25 to life because so few inmates are paroled after 25 years. To imply that my daughter’s sentence was cut in half is misleading.

Sarah was convicted of first-degree murder. She’s as likely to serve 50 years as she is to serve 25.

Sarah’s supporters have never characterized the battered woman syndrome defense as a Get Out of Jail Free Card.

My daughter killed Mr. Sasko in an especially brutal manner; before leaving the scene she used his blood to write ‘Freedom’ on a kitchen wall. This is not in dispute. The question is, Why? What was going on in that house?

During one of the hearings on whether Sarah’s trial attorney had provided ineffective counsel, she testified under oath that Sasko had been forcing himself on her “several times a week” for almost a year. The routine, she said, was to “just be so drunk that, I mean, he definitely wouldn’t ask, it would just happen.”

I’m not an attorney, but I’m told this meets the legal definition of rape. And let’s not forget that Sasko was 33 years older than Sarah; he’d taken her in with promises of a better life; he wanted the nature of their relationship kept secret; he told his employees that Sarah was his step-daughter; he was in Sarah’s cellphone under “Dad.”

In filing the ineffective-counsel appeal, Sternberg argued that Sasko had “groomed” Sarah and that, “She saw no way out of her situation — essentially sexual and financial slavery — unless she killed herself or removed Mr. Sasko.”

Marilyn Hutchison, a forensic psychologist who logged more than 17 hours of in-person interviews with Sarah, said Sasko’s “weekly demand for sex was accompanied by threats and degradation. Like a battered woman, (Sarah) was demeaned, controlled, and over time … felt worse and worse.”

Nevertheless, Sarah’s trial attorney decided not to mount a battered woman syndrome defense; instead, he argued that a personality disorder clouded her thinking, that only part of her condoned her actions. The jury wasn’t swayed.

In their opinion piece, it appears that Valdez wrote: “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.”

May have?

Again, what does Valdez think was going on in that house?

Has she not seen the police interviews in which Sasko’s acquaintances said how controlling he was, how he once shared that “it is amazing to have an 18-year-old,” how he was known to be buying and selling drugs?

Did she miss the Kansas City Star article in which a former restaurant manager said that when he heard Sasko had been found dead, “the first thing I said to my wife was, ‘I wonder which one of those girls’ dads went over there and killed him.’”

Did she miss the text in which Sasko apologized for “trying to sleep with you last night”?

Valdez and Sternberg say the Hard 25 to life settlement was “the only way to guarantee a better outcome” for Sarah.

Advocates for Sarah disagree. We are not attorneys, but it’s our belief that Sarah should have been awarded a new trial, one in which jurors would be exposed to the realities of grooming and why battered women react the way they do. Unfortunately, the settlement wipes that slate clean.

Valdez and Sternberg may find legal comfort in knowing that a young woman who killed her rapist will spend at least 25 years in prison. We do not.

Michelle Gonzales, 53, is a native Topekan and a graduate of Topeka High School. She has an associate degree in fine arts and is one class short of a bachelor’s degree in history. She has two daughters and three adopted sons.

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