Clay Wirestone: A Kansas woman killed her abuser. At every level, in every instance, the system failed her. (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 story of Sarah Gonzales-McLinn is one of incomprehensible abuse and personal redemption.

It’s also one of baffling, and repeated, institutional failure.

At every step, those who might have been expected to care for and protect a victim of grooming and human trafficking looked the other way. They retreated into legalistic formalities. All the while, a woman who thought she had no other option than to kill her rapist sits in prison for at least a quarter century.

Read Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith’s story about the case as published Monday. And then ask yourself: Why did no one step up to help this woman in her times of need? And even today, why has Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly not granted her clemency?

“How do we define justice when an abused individual kills his or her abuser?” wondered retired journalist and advocate Dave Ranney. “I can’t give you an exact number, but I can assure you that there are a lot of women in prison for killing their abusers at a time when they truly believed their lives were in danger. Sarah is not alone in this.”

Kansans face a decision point today, in our Legislature and culture. We can decide to protect those like Gonzales-McLinn through targeted changes in state law and education about human trafficking. Or we can continue to avert our eyes from abuse of children at the hands of prominent community members or those employed by powerful institutions.

The powerful will always have those willing to defend their worst excesses. Those like Gonzales-McLinn face a system that has failed them and continues to do so.

Sarah Gonzales-McLinn appears May 25, 2021, in Douglas County District Court to accept a deal that reduced her first-degree murder sentence from a Hard 50 to a Hard 25. (Mackenzie Clark/The Lawrence Times)

Each juncture

Consider Smith’s careful and detailed reporting.

Gonzales-McLinn was molested as a child and raped at age 16. Her community did not protect her from those who sought to sexually gratify themselves at her expense. And it did not find a way to ensure that she had the supports she needed to heal from such violence.

“I wish I could say that I was just this ideal 17-year-old girl when I moved in there,” she told Smith. “But that’s not true. If I was, I don’t think he would have picked me, and I don’t think the tactics would have worked as well. But for the year that I lived there with him, I just felt like all of the pain building up and building up.”

As a 17-year-old, Gonzales-McLinn went to live with Hal Sasko, then 50 years old. From her accounts, a man who promised to look after her and take care of her proceeded to rape her multiple times a week for 10 months. She sent a text to her sister reading: “I feel like a caged animal right now, and it’s making me crazy.”

Who was looking out for her then? Who was there to prevent a man in his 50s from grooming children?

A confidential police report found that Sasko tended to gravitate to girls who had been “abused, battered, dumped, trouble with the law, or massive complaints about their moms.” Think of how much damage could have been prevented if officials knew that, and acted on it, before Gonzales-McLinn went to live with him.

Even after the abuse, after the violent slaying, the system failed this young woman. The judge in her murder trial didn’t allow jurors to hear testimony about her abuse.

“Details of those allegations would not be proper in front of the jury during the guilt phase of the trial because they would be simply information that would be used to create sympathy for the defendant,” prosecutor Charles Branson argued to the judge, according to a 2015 transcript of a closed-door meeting.

Well, yes. That’s what common sense demands. Both the judge and prosecutor failed to allow a jury to hear all the evidence. They enabled a miscarriage of justice.

While Douglas County District Attorney Susanne Valdez later reached a deal with Gonzales-McLinn to reduce her Hard 50 prison sentence to a Hard 25, the change only matters if a parole board agrees to let the prisoner out. And there’s no guarantee of that. In other words, Valdez made a high-profile change that appeared to extend mercy but instead represented another falling short, another person shying from the courage necessary to make a difference.

When it came time to write this story, Smith witnessed another systemic failure. The state Department of Corrections would not allow him to meet in person with Gonzales-McLinn, who has grown and flourished while confined. She was forced to speak about her personal pain via telephone, in a shared space.

Its official policy states that “the Kansas Department of Corrections does not grant interviews with specific residents, except for those rare circumstances where residents are designated by the Department to participate in news stories about topics determined appropriate.”

This topic, apparently, was not deemed appropriate.

Megan Stuke
Contributed Photo The way Megan Stuke sees it, Sarah Gonzales-McLinn acted in self-defense when she killed Hal Sasko. Stuke is the executive director of The Willow, a domestic violence center in Lawrence. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Taking responsibility

Countless societal and institutional failures have crashed down on Gonzales-McLinn, who already has spent the better part of decade behind bars.

Her fate rests in the hands of Kelly, whose staff likely would advise against granting clemency to someone who committed a brutal murder. They may be right, politically. But that makes Kelly the latest person to fail this young woman, to ignore her promise and potential.

We don’t have to accept this. We aren’t helpless.

Right now, as I write these words, bills have been introduced in the Kansas Legislature to address child sexual abuse. Advocates and survivors have spoken up, sometimes at great personal cost. We can create laws, policies and societal expectations to prevent more children and adults from falling into the traps that ensnared Gonzales-McLinn. We can educate one another about human trafficking, sexual abuse and mental health.

Megan Stuke of The Willow, a Lawrence domestic violence center, put it in perspective: “There’s so much shame, there’s so much guilt, there’s so much minimizing and denying and self blaming that when you’re in that situation, you’re not looking for resources, you’re just trying to kind of hide and survive. So the bigger the conversation gets, the more people will recognize it when it’s happening to them, and realize that they may have options.”

We can enlarge that conversation. We can act to protect children and young people.

We can also grant a measure of mercy to Gonzales-McLinn.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, the 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.

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