After nearly nine years in prison, Gonzales-McLinn seeks clemency in the murder of Lawrence restaurant owner
photo by: Journal-World
Updated at 9:18 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023
A Lawrence woman who violently killed a man she accuses of raping and abusing her is seeking to be released from prison via the state’s rarely used clemency process.
Sarah Gonzales-McLinn has filed an application for clemency with Gov. Laura Kelly’s office, and the application is being supported by several Lawrence leaders who have have been advocates for victims of sexual and physical abuse.
In addition, Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez reportedly is considering urging Kelly to grant the clemency request, according to an article by the Kansas Reflector news service, which interviewed Gonzales-McLinn and reviewed multiple documents from her case, which dates back to 2014.
In 2015, a Douglas County jury convicted Gonzales-McLinn of murdering 52-year-old Harold “Hal” Sasko, who was the owner of Cici’s Pizza in Lawrence and lived with Gonzales-McLinn at the time of his death.
In her written clemency application, Gonzales-McLinn expresses remorse over Sasko’s killing. Evidence at trial indicated that Gonzales-McLinn drugged Sasko with sleeping pills, bound his hands and feet while he was unconscious, then cut his throat, nearly decapitating him.
“Sorrow is now a part of my everyday life,” Gonzales-McLinn wrote. “I wish my efforts to reach out to doctors and mental health professionals had been more fruitful and that shame and fear had not paralyzed me and sealed my mouth shut. I acknowledge than an abundance of drugs and alcohol further clouded my judgement.”
But Gonzales-McLinn also lists in her clemency application several concerns she has about her case. She said it wasn’t until after her incarceration that she realized she had been groomed, purposely isolated from friends and family, “indentured” and “coerced into believing I was powerless to leave; that I was undesirable, a burden; that if I left, no one would want me and I would soon find myself penniless and ‘on the street.'”
A letter listing the names of 18 victim advocates was included with the clemency application. That letter — Lawrence signees include David Ranney, Megan Stuke, Sarah Jane Russell, Sarah Deer, Joan Schultz, Alice Lieberman, among others — seeks the immediate release of Gonzales-McLinn, who has been incarcerated for nearly nine years.
“Advocates have long argued that regardless of Ms. McLinn’s mental condition, she was a sexually traumatized young woman who killed her abuser, a much older man who’d been raping her two to four times a week for almost a year,” the letter reads.
Sasko already was dead at the time allegations of sexual abuse publicly emerged; thus he was never charged with a crime related to the abuse allegations. In a previous court hearing, Sasko’s daughter criticized theories that Gonzales-McLinn was the victim of abuse by Sasko.
However, Sasko’s family ultimately supported a 2021 legal motion that led to Gonzales-McLinn’s original 50-year sentence being reduced to 25 years after a civil case for post-conviction relief was filed asking for her sentence to be reduced or her conviction to be undone and retried in court. The petition alleged ineffective counsel, including her trial attorney’s failure to employ the battered woman’s defense. Her trial attorney had focused instead on a defense of mental illness, including the theory that Gonzales-McLinn had multiple personalities.
Appeals in her criminal case had all been unsuccessful and had all been exhausted.
Douglas County Judge Amy Hanley granted the reduction in sentence, after Gonzales-McLinn’s new attorney and District Attorney Valdez — who was not in office during the original prosecution of the case — brought forward the request for a sentence reduction.
According to reporting by the Kansas Reflector, the news service has seen a copy of an email exchange where Valdez answered affirmatively when Gonzales-McLinn’s attorney asked Valdez whether she intends to personally support “Sarah obtaining clemency from the Governor when it becomes politically appropriate for both you and the governor.”
Valdez, a Democrat who is serving her first term as district attorney, did not respond to a request for comment from the Kansas Reflector. On Monday, she told the Journal-World that the case was a difficult one — and one in which the defendant deserved mercy.
“As was stated following Ms. Gonzales-McLinn’s resentencing, from the prosecutor’s view, this case was troubling,” Valdez said in an email to the Journal-World through her spokesperson, Cheryl Cadue. “Although no evidence was presented during the criminal trial to support Ms. 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. The new sentence represents the offer Ms. Gonzales-McLinn would have accepted had she had effective trial counsel.”
The clemency application provides an update on life for Gonzales-McLinn, who is now 28. She remains incarcerated in the Topeka Correctional Facility, but in the fall of 2021 she was moved from the medium-security portion of the prison to the minimum-security side of the facility.
She also has begun taking classes through Washburn University, and has received training in the craft of making dentures, which is a profession she hopes to pursue upon release from prison. She said upon release, she hopes to move to California, where she has an aunt. She also has housing options in Kansas and Florida, she said.
While in prison, Gonzales-McLinn said she turned to exercise and meditation, going to the gym at least six days per week. She also said she turned to God, Bible study and other religious practices.
She wrote that she also is coming to terms with drug and alcohol addiction issues that played a role in Sasko’s murder.
“Since my incarceration, I have come to realize that my immaturity and use of drugs and alcohol while in a situation governed by control and abuse impacted my ability to respond to my circumstance responsibly and without violence,” she wrote.
Gonzales-McLinn said in the application that she has been sharing her story with many people as they have toured the women’s prison in Topeka.
“This has been a special and rewarding experience,” McLinn said of her involvement in the prison’s Reaching Out From Within program, “as I believe that part of God’s plan for my life is to help others who may find themselves in power-and-control situations like the one I was in — or to prevent them from going there in the first place.”
There is not a timeline for when the governor may make a decision on Gonzales-McLinn’s clemency request.