Kansas Supreme Court considering Sarah McLinn’s hard-50 sentence for murder of Lawrence business owner

Sarah Gonzales McLinn gives a statement Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, in Douglas County District Court before her sentencing for the first-degree murder of Harold “Hal” Sasko in January 2014.

Topeka — The Kansas Supreme Court is considering whether the hard-50 life sentence handed down to convicted murderer Sarah McLinn in 2015 was appropriate.

McLinn was convicted of first-degree murder in March 2015 after she drugged, bound and nearly decapitated 52-year-old Harold Sasko, of Lawrence. McLinn was 19 at the time of the murder.

Sasko was found on the living room floor of his Lawrence home on Jan. 17, 2014. His wrists and ankles were zip-tied, and his blood was smeared on a wall. In the smear, McLinn had scrawled the word “FREEDOM,” according to court evidence.

McLinn had been living with Sasko for more than a year before the killing and had previously worked for him at one of Sasko’s CiCi’s Pizza restaurants.

On Tuesday morning McLinn’s attorney, Samuel Schirer, argued to the Kansas Supreme Court that instructions given to the jury in his client’s trial were incomplete, which led to an unjust outcome.

During the trial, jurors were given instructions only on a charge of first-degree murder, Schirer said. That charge requires both intent and premeditation.

However, jurors should have been given instructions on a lesser charge, namely second-degree murder, which they could have chosen if they did not find the elements required in the first-degree murder charge, Schirer said.

The ability to choose a lesser charge is important in McLinn’s case, Schirer said, because expert testimony regarding her mental health status addressed her ability to premeditate the murder.

During the trial one psychologist, hired by the defense, diagnosed McLinn with Dissociative Identity Disorder, meaning she has multiple personalities.

McLinn’s “fragmented” personalities would impair her ability to reflect on her crimes, Schirer said. And that reflection is a necessary component of premeditation, he argued.

In addition, jurors should have been instructed on how to convict McLinn of a lesser charge, regardless of the evidence, Schirer said.

Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson, however, argued that McLinn’s trial was properly conducted and the evidence at trial was so overwhelming that second-degree murder was not a viable option for the jurors.

The defense all but conceded that McLinn’s crime was premeditated, Branson said, and that the preparation needed to commit the murder strongly supports that argument.

Throughout Branson’s arguments most of the seven Supreme Court justices asked questions. Multiple times, Justice Carol Beier noted that jury instructions for a lesser charge – second-degree murder, in this case – are required to be given unless the evidence excludes that possibility.

When asked how the evidence excludes the possibility of a second-degree murder conviction for McLinn, Branson held fast, arguing that the case overwhelmingly supported both premeditation and intent.

Jury instructions aside, Schirer argued that McLinn’s sentence was too harsh.

The hard-50 sentence — meaning that an offender must serve at least 50 years in prison before being considered for parole — is typically reserved for especially heinous or cruel crimes, Schirer said. McLinn’s case doesn’t meet that standard because she drugged Sasko and killed him quickly in his sleep, Schirer claimed.

The elements of McLinn’s murder of Sasko do not distinguish the crime from a “typical” first-degree murder, Schirer said.

Branson, however, disagreed with that assessment. The manner in which McLinn killed Sasko made the crime especially cruel and heinous, Branson said.

Drugging, binding and cutting the throat of a helpless man makes for a cold and calculated crime, Branson said. McLinn cut her victim’s carotid artery “literally bleeding (him) as you would an animal,” Branson said.

After Schirer and Branson finished their arguments, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said the court would take the matter under advisement.

Outside the courtroom, Branson said the court’s decision could take months, but he’s optimistic that the justices will uphold the original rulings.

McLinn’s friends and relatives were in the courtroom as arguments were presented. They filed into the lobby of the Kansas Judicial Center after the justices took the matter under advisement.

McLinn’s mother, Michelle Gonzales, said her daughter is currently “doing fine, given the circumstances.”

Carmen Bakarich, a friend of McLinn’s family, said the group was pleased with Schirer’s arguments and with the court’s engagement with the process.

According to the Kansas Department of Corrections, McLinn is currently serving her sentence in the Topeka Correctional Facility.