Inchoate Justice: Should We Reconsider Sarah Kruzan?
Who is Sarah Kruzan? For those unfamiliar with the case, at age 16 Sarah Kruzan murdered her pimp Howard. She had been a runaway, put into the atrocious cycle of child prostitution.
Prosecutors argued at trial that Howard no longer employed Kruzan at the time of the killing, and that a week earlier, she had moved into the Rubidoux home of one of Howard’s rivals — a drug dealer who put her up to robbing and shooting him. On March 10, 1994, Kruzan agreed to go to the movies with the 36-year-old Howard and spend the night with him at the Dynasty Suites motel on Iowa Avenue. She packed a pistol. @ PE.com
Sarah stuck a pistol to the neck of her victim and murdered him in cold blood. Sarah then stole $1500 and his Jaguar.
“She seduced and she killed,” prosecutor Timothy Freer, now a Riverside Superior Court judge, told jurors.
This type of pre-mediated murder invokes the harshest of sentences. She was convicted of first-degree murder and as a aggravating factor “laying in wait” in course of robbery.
Sarah is in prison serving life without parole for this heinous crime.
Why is this garnering any attention? A video of her story went viral, organizations of youth justice formed petitions, celebrities spoke out… Sarah is now the face of the reformation movement in juvenile justice. Here is the video that started it all:
From a legal perspective this was unequivocally capitol murder of the worst kind: pre-meditated.
The justice system acknowledges this then applies mitigating forces to determine if this person was truly guilty of the most heinous offense. Mitigating factors include….
- The pimp-prostitute relationship: abuse, exploitation,mental anguish. Was the murder committed under severe mental distress? He was 31 when he met her, at age 11…
- Did Sarah have the capacity to understand the gravity of her actions? She was still a child without a moral compass, prejudiced by a harsh need to survive – most people reading this will never fight to survive.
- Did Sarah actually commit the murder in Cold Blood or did she see a moral justification?
- Was Sarah’s new pimp forcing her to commit this crime?
- Was Sarah’s prior history sufficiently unique to give rise to a narrative that explains this murder in a mitigating light?
With all these factors clearly on the table, this story takes an terrible turn with an incompetent … lazy… overworked attorney. Public Defenders are notoriously unable to provide a coherent defense regime. Reflect for a moment what challenges are presented to a PD with a overloaded docket. This case is allegedly rife with instances in which the defense could have mounted opposition. An appeal for a writ of Habeas Corpus was denied. Assuming this was rejection was proper, the judgment may be sound even if a poor defense was offered. As a side note, Kruzan was offered a plea that included parole but against her attorneys advice she refused. Although hindsight is 20/20, considering the case against her it is shocking she did not accept. It is my assertion that the law has worked, albeit harshly. The failure is on the part of legislatures not enumerating rehabiliation guidelines – Courts generally are not in the business of making law when the politicians have spoken.
Where the Law Failed – Rehabilitation and Youth
The California Youth Authority has issued materials that suggests that runaways are able to greatly benefit from rehabilitation. Punishment and Rehabilitation, two competing interests that the case of Sara Kruzan shows was incorrectly balanced. The legislature needs to be forthright with good policy that is tailored to social needs. This 18 year mark is so arbitrary it hurts. Criminal behavior of minors, no matter how atrocious, can be altered. I don’t think people by nature are unable to change. For these purposes however, minors are particularly malleable. If there is ever to be a true movement towards rehabilitation it would start with kids. Legislatures across America should cast a critical eye on juvenile justice and offer policy with compassion and empathy. The “eye for an eye” justice is arcane, for the benefit of society we must punish and rehabilitate. That requires fundamentally changing sentencing procedures and prisons – a monumental task.
Was race an issue?
“There are approximately 225 juveniles in California serving a life without parole sentence. California has the worst racial disparity rate in the nation for sentencing juveniles to life without parole. Black youth are given this sentence at 22 times the rate of white youth.”
Statistics show that harsher sentences are given to minorities (often in very similar situations) . Whatever biases created this systematic disenfranchisement, it must be dealt with directly. This is unacceptable.
“Facts seem to say that when in similar economic circumstances, white, latino and black people act similarly, and that race is not a defining factor in gang rape, or any other violent crime. Jerry Brice on Gang Rape at Richmond High
The Good Fight
Although this case has been denied by an Appeal, it is not beyond the scope of reason that it may be re-opened under any number of plausible errors.
“Life without parole means absolutely no opportunity for release,” said Senator Yee. (of California) “It also means minors are often left without access to programs and rehabilitative services while in prison. This sentence was created for the worst of criminals that have no possibility of reform and it is not a humane way to handle children. While the crimes they committed caused undeniable suffering, these youth offenders are not the worst of the worst.”CriminalJustice.Change.org
“As a society we’ve learned a lot since the time we started using life without parole for children,” said Elizabeth Calvin, a children’s rights advocate with Human Rights Watch. “We now know that this sentence provides no deterrent effect. While children who commit serious crimes should be held accountable, public safety can be protected without subjecting youth to the harshest prison sentence possible.”
If you wish to help, follow the link to donate and sign the petition.