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Kansas woman who killed her rapist faces long odds for clemency

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Prisoner Review Board has recommended clemency 27 times in 12 years

TOPEKA — Sarah Gonzales-McLinn faces long odds in her bid for clemency based on the rarity in which the Prisoner Review Board recommends approval, the willingness of governors to wield their power, the severity of her crime and opposition from those close to Hal Sasko.

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Gonzales-McLinn murdered Sasko in January 2014 after he held her captive in his Lawrence home and raped her repeatedly for months. A group of advocates filed a clemency application on her behalf in December.

Kansas Reflector on Jan. 30 published an in-depth story detailing the abuse, which was substantiated by police documents. The jury wasn’t allowed to hear the evidence of abuse during her 2015 trial, where she was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to a minimum of 50 years in prison. She later accepted a plea deal that lowered the required prison time to at least 25 years in exchange for giving up the right to appeal.

Gonzales-McLinn’s supporters hope to persuade Gov. Laura Kelly to grant Gonzales-McLinn clemency. The governor’s office won’t comment on the situation before the Prisoner Review Board makes a recommendation.

“The true purpose of clemency is twofold — to provide access to mercy and to correct an injustice,” said Dave Ranney, a retired journalist and advocate for Gonzales-McLinn. “Most people, I think, would agree that someone who’s been through as much sexual and mental trauma as Sarah has deserves mercy. And the notion that an abused individual who kills his or her abuser is somehow forbidden from discussing that abuse in front of a jury is an injustice that warrants correction.”

Since its inception in July 2011, the Prisoner Review Board has made 27 recommendations for clemency.

The Prisoner Review Board is tasked with evaluating the scores of clemency applications it receives every year and making recommendations to the governor. The board has recommended clemency for 25 men and two women since its inception in 2011, according to data provided by the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Kelly and her four predecessors combined have used their clemency power a total of 18 times in 20 years.

Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius issued one pardon during her six years in office. Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson pardoned four people as he filled out her term.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback established the Prisoner Review Board through an executive order in 2011. He issued a pardon in 2017 for a man who received recommendation from the board.

Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer granted clemency to three individuals, including two recommended by the board.

Kelly granted clemency to eight individuals in 2021. Only one of them had been recommended by the board.

When governors use their power to issue a pardon or commute a sentence, it typically involves drug-related or financial crimes. Gonzales-McLinn, who is 28 and has been incarcerated for nine years, presents an unprecedented argument.

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Her application for clemency effectively asks the governor: How much time should a woman spend in prison for killing her rapist?

The answer is complicated by the violent way Gonzales-McLinn killed Sasko. She spiked his drink, bound his limbs, slashed his throat and wrote “FREEDOM” on the wall in his blood. When police questioned her, she admitted her actions.

Anne Sasko, who has communicated with the Prisoner Review Board, said she and her daughter have to “relive this nightmare” every time the news media writes about her ex-husband. She believes Gonzales-McLinn should remain in prison.

“She chose to stay, then she chose to murder,” Anne Sasko said in an email to Kansas Reflector. “Aggravative, heinous and definitely premeditated, nearly decapitating another human being. I can only hope you focus on the true victims in this case and just understand we are in pain every single day because of what she chose to do to him.”

Gonzales-McLinn moved in with Hal Sasko when she was 17 and he was 50. He offered to take care of her, providing access to alcohol and drugs. After she turned 18, he told her she would have to have sex with him as a condition of staying, and that she couldn’t leave until she paid him thousands of dollars for rent, phone bills, and unwanted cosmetic surgery. He threatened to sue her and wreck her credit rating if she left. She said she would drink herself into a nearly unconscious state in order to have sex with him, by her estimation, two or three times a week for 10 months.

“I wish I could say that I was just this ideal 17-year-old girl when I moved in there,” Gonzales-McLinn said in a phone interview from prison. “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.”

Her story was supported by a psychologist and confidential police reports based on interviews with Hal Sasko’s family and friends. The police reports showed he favored girls like Gonzales-McLinn who had been “abused, battered, dumped, trouble with the law, or massive complaints about their moms.” At the time of the murder, he was grooming twin 16-year-old girls whose mother had inquired about obtaining a restraining order.

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Becca Spielman, program director for the Center for Safety and Empowerment at YWCA Northeast Kansas, works regularly with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking. Spielman said there are misconceptions about why someone would stay in an abusive relationship, “and I think that comes from a lack of understanding about how complex these issues of violence are.”

Typically, she said, there isn’t violence at the onset of a relationship. There is usually some level of commitment. A survivor may feel tied to her abuser because of housing needs, job security or substance abuse. Financial abuse, Spielman said, is evident in 98% of the YWCA’s clients.

“We see financial abuse being a huge part of the violence that has occurred,” Spielman said. “That level of dependency, it becomes impossible to leave or to get some level of independence.”

Gonzales-McLinn felt like her only way to escape was to kill herself or kill Hal Sasko.

“I never had this mentality of, ‘I’m just going to get out scot-free, that’s what I’m fighting for, that’s what I want.’ But I did always want what was fair,” Gonzales-McLinn said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus 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: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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Kansas woman who killed her rapist faces long odds for clemency

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Sarah Gonzales-McLinn faces long odds in her bid for clemency based on the rarity in which the Prisoner Review Board recommends approval, the willingness of governors to wield their power, the severity of her crime and opposition from those close to Hal Sasko.

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times

Clay Wirestone: A Kansas woman killed her abuser. At every level, in every instance, the system failed her. (Column)

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”Even after the abuse, after the violent slaying, the system failed (Sarah Gonzales-McLinn). The judge in her murder trial didn’t allow jurors to hear testimony about her abuse,” Clay Wirestone writes in this Kansas Reflector column.

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