McLinn’s request for new trial denied, will undergo mental health evaluation before sentencing

Sarah Gonzales McLinn, convicted in March of first-degree murder in the death of CiCi’s Pizza owner Harold “Hal” Sasko, will undergo a mental health evaluation at Larned State Hospital before sentencing, Douglas County District Judge Paula Martin ruled Wednesday.

Sarah Gonzales McLinn

Harold Sasko

Carl Cornwell

Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson, pictured speaking during a 2014 press conference.

The results of that evaluation could determine whether McLinn receives mental health treatment or goes to prison, perhaps for 50 years with no chance for parole.

McLinn was originally set to be sentenced Wednesday, but her defense attorney, Carl Cornwell, filed a motion for a new trial. Martin rejected that request.

Jurors agreed in March that McLinn killed Sasko, her roommate at the time of his death, after viewing gory photographs of the crime scene, including a living room wall covered in blood and the word “FREEDOM” scrawled in the smear. McLinn admitted to binding Sasko’s wrists and ankles, feeling for his carotid artery and plunging a hunting knife through his neck, nearly decapitating him.

The results of the mental health evaluation will be come part of the pre-sentence investigation report given to Martin. The reports are completed after conviction to help judges with sentencing decisions and typically include criminal histories and other factors.

If Martin decides McLinn is in need of treatment from Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility, and that sending her there would aid in her rehabilitation and not endanger the community, District Attorney Charles Branson said, the “Hard 50” sentencing option would be effectively off the table.

“It’s either Larned or the ‘Hard 50.’ If Larned were to say in five years, ‘She’s OK to be released,’ then she would come back to the judge who would decide if she should go to prison or be released,” Branson said. “It’s an open-ended sentence versus what the jury found.”

Cornwell argued that his client was not guilty by mental disease or defect because McLinn could not have formed intent because she suffered from dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personalities, after years of physical and sexual abuse. If jurors had found McLinn not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, McLinn would have been sent for treatment at Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility.

Instead, the jury found that McLinn was guilty and that the act was “especially heinous or atrocious,” making her eligible for the “Hard 50” sentence.

Cornwell on Wednesday argued McLinn should be evaluated to help the court in deciding a sentence.

“I would think it would be helpful to have a neutral third party to decide if she has a mental illness and whether or not they could help her,” Cornwell said.

Cornwell said he was convinced that his client has mental health issues and that he believes she would be better served at Larned.

Branson argued that McLinn could receive adequate mental health treatment within the women’s prison system and that placing McLinn in Larned would endanger the community.

“This is a situation where society is safer with her confinement,” Branson said.

Cornwell said that committing McLinn to Larned would not exactly be a vacation.

“Having been to Larned on numerous occasions, it is a prison,” Cornwell said. “You go through ports and you do not get out.”

Martin said that she was aware that the women’s prison system provides “very good treatment’ and may even have a “better doctor-patient ratio” than Larned. She ordered the mental examination because, she said, the results would only help McLinn’s current treatment providers and it would not rule out the option of sending McLinn to prison.

Retrial denied

Cornwell said he asked the court to order a retrial for a number of reasons. First, Cornwell argued that the court erred in allowing jurors to view four autopsy photos of Sasko’s body, including Sasko’s slit-open throat. Martin said showing the photos was justified because they aided the pathologist in explaining the injuries and they “weren’t particularly gruesome,” as they showed the body after the blood had been cleaned off.

Second, Cornwell argued the court erred in not allowing the defense to argue the mental disease or defect defense during the post-conviction stage when jurors had to decide if the act was committed with one or more aggravating factors. Martin said that banning Cornwell from using the defense during the aggravating factor phase was in accordance with Kansas statute. Martin said Cornwell would have the opportunity to use the mental disease or defect argument with her during sentencing to try to convince Martin that a lesser sentence should be given.

Additionally, Cornwell argued he should have been able to opine on jury instructions that said McLinn would be sent to Larned if found not guilty.

“He was wanting to argue she needed treatment and not to send her to prison,” Martin said.

Martin said that the jury instructions mention that McLinn would be sent to a state mental hospital to ease their minds that she wouldn’t be set free if they found her not guilty by reason of mental defect, not for them to consider the disposition of the case after their verdict.

Finally, Cornwell argued a mistrial should be called because the verdict was contrary to expert testimony at trial after both the defense’s witness, psychologist Marilyn Hutchinson, and the state’s witness, psychiatrist William Logan, agreed McLinn suffered from dissociative identity disorder. However, Martin rejected that argument because Logan testified that he did believe McLinn could have formed intent even with multiple personalities.

McLinn is in the Douglas County Jail without bond until she can be taken for her examination at Larned State Hospital. After the examination is concluded, she will return to Douglas County and a sentencing date will be scheduled.