By Sherman SmithKansas Reflector
TOPEKA — Sarah Gonzales-McLinn faces lengthy difficulties in her plea for clemency based on the rarity in which the Prisoner Review Board recommends approval, the governors’ willingness to exercise their power, the seriousness of her crime, and the opposition of those which are close to Hal Sasko.
Gonzales-McLinn killed Sasko in January 2014 after holding her captive at her Lawrence home and repeatedly raping her for months. A group of lawyers filed a clemency application on her behalf in December.
Kansas Reflector on January 30 published an in-depth story detailing the abuse, which was confirmed by police documents. The jury was not allowed to hear evidence of her 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 agreed to a plea deal that reduced the required prison term to at least 25 years in exchange for waiving the right to appeal.
Gonzales-McLinn supporters are hoping to get Gov. Laura Kelly to grant Gonzales-McLinn clemency. The governor’s office will not comment on the situation until the Prisoner Review Board makes a recommendation.
“The true purpose of clemency is twofold: to provide access to mercy and to right an injustice,” said Dave Ranney, a retired journalist and Gonzales-McLinn advocate. “Most people, I think, would agree that someone who has suffered as much sexual and mental trauma as Sarah does deserves mercy. And the notion that an abused individual who kills his or her abuser is somehow barred from discussing that abuse before a jury is an injustice that deserves correction.
The Prisoner Review Board is tasked with evaluating the scores on the clemency applications it receives each year and making recommendations to the governor. The board has recommended pardons for 25 men and two women since its inception in 2011, according to data provided by the Kansas Department of Corrections.
Kelly and his four predecessors combined used their clemency power a total of 18 times in 20 years.
Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has granted a pardon during her six years in office. Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson pardoned four people as he completed his term.
Republican Governor Sam Brownback established the Prisoner Review Board through an executive order in 2011. He issued a pardon in 2017 for a man who received a recommendation from the board.
Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer pardoned three people, including two recommended by the board.
Kelly pardoned eight people in 2021. Only one of them had been recommended by the council.
When governors use their power to grant pardons or commute a sentence, it’s usually for drug-related or financial crimes. Gonzales-McLinn, who is 28 and has been incarcerated for nine years, presents an unprecedented argument.
Her clemency plea actually 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. He spiked his drink, bound his limbs, slit his throat, and wrote “LIBERTY” on the wall in his blood. When the police questioned her, she admitted to his actions.
Anne Sasko, who communicated with the Prisoner Review Board, said she and her daughter must “relive this nightmare” every time the media writes about her ex-husband. She believes Gonzales-McLinn should stay in jail.
“He chose to stay, then he chose to kill,” Anne Sasko said in an email to the Kansas Reflector. “Aggravating, excruciating and downright premeditated, nearly decapitating another human being. I can only hope you focus on the real victims in this case and understand that we suffer 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 care for her, providing access to alcohol and drugs. After he turned 18, she told her that she would have to have sex with him as a condition of staying her and that she couldn’t leave until she paid him thousands of dollars in rent, phone bills and surgery. unwanted cosmetic surgery. She threatened to sue her and ruin her credit rating if she walked out. She said she would drink herself almost unconscious to have sex with him, according to her estimates, two to three times a week for 10 months.
“I wish I could say I was just an ideal 17-year-old girl when I moved there,” Gonzales-McLinn said in a phone interview from prison. “But it’s not true. If I had been, I don’t think she would have chosen me, and I don’t think the tactic would have worked as well. But for the year I lived there with him, I felt that all the pain just piled up and piled up.
His story was supported by a psychologist and confidential police reports based on interviews with Hal Sasko’s family and friends. Police reports showed he favored girls like Gonzales-McLinn who had been “abused, abused, dumped, in trouble with the law, or massive complaints about their mothers.” At the time of the murder, he was treating 16-year-old twin girls whose mother had inquired about obtaining a restraining order.
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 should stay in an abusive relationship, “and I think it stems from a lack of understanding of how complex these issues of violence are.”
Typically, she said, there is no violence at the beginning of a relationship. There is usually some level of commitment. A survivor may feel connected to her abuser due to housing needs, job security, or substance abuse. Financial abuse, Spielman said, is evident in 98 percent of YWCA clients.
“We see that financial abuse is a huge part of the violence that has occurred,” Spielman said. “That level of dependency, it becomes impossible to leave or get some level of independence.”
Gonzales-McLinn felt his only way to escape was to kill himself or kill Hal Sasko.
“I’ve never had this mentality of ‘I’m going to walk away without a problem, that’s what I’m fighting for, that’s what I want.’ But I always wanted what was right” Gonzales-McLinn said.