By Paul Elias
SAN FRANCISCO — Sara Kruzan was 17 when she was sentenced to die in prison for killing and robbing a pimp in a Riverside motel. Now, at 32, Kruzan has a chance at being freed, along with thousands of other juveniles convicted of murder who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Those life sentences are coming under increased attack from activists, lawmakers and even the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles as unconstitutional "cruel and unusual" punishment. On Thursday, the California Assembly passed a bill by the slimmest of margins that would give juvenile lifers in that state a shot at freedom.
Nationwide, there are roughly 2,500 inmates who killed as juveniles that are serving life in prison without parole, including 309 California inmates serving such sentences, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
"Because their brain is still developing, they have the ability to rehabilitate," said Michael Harris, a senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. "They are more likely to rehabilitate than an adult."
Despite the legal rulings and the legislative activity, some survivors of people killed by juveniles are pushing back and arguing that a life sentence is appropriate punishment for juveniles who commit heinous murders.
"They say they deserve a second chance, but the victims don't get a second chance," said Maggie Elvey, whose husband was murdered in 1993 by two teens during the robbery of his gun shop in Vista, Calif.
She called Thursday a "sad day" because of the California Assembly's passage of a bill introduced by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. The bill allows lifers to seek a sentence of 25-years-to-life with a chance for parole after serving 15 years. It passed the state Senate last year but failed repeatedly in the Assembly before Democrat lawmakers approved it by a single vote after a heated debate. The bill moves back to the state Senate for final approval. Passage is expected.
Criminal defense lawyer Daniel Horowitz, whose wife was murdered in 2005 by a 16 year old now serving life without parole, largely sides with Elvey.
Releasing most of the thousands of juvenile lifers "would open the gates of hell," Horowitz said.
"We aren't trying to punish these young people," he said. "We are trying to protect the public from this happening again."
Still, Horowitz said Kruzan may warrant an exception because of her compelling life story, which includes sexual abuse at a young age.
Kruzan's case began to garner widespread publicity in 2010 after Human Rights Watch posted a six-minute interview with her on YouTube that received 300,000 hits.
The year culminated with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commuting her sentence to 25-years-to-life with the possibility of parole on Dec. 31, 2010, his last full day in office. Schwarzenegger said he still considered her guilty of first-degree murder, but he sympathized with her defense that the man she killed had sexually abused her and served as her pimp for years.
"Given Ms. Kruzan's age at the time of the murder, and considering the significant abuse she suffered at his hands, I believe Ms. Kruzan's sentence is excessive," the governor wrote in his commutation message, "it is apparent that Ms. Kruzan suffered significant abuse starting at a vulnerable age."
Today, Kruzan is fighting for an even bigger reduction of her prison sentence, arguing she killed her pimp as a result of "intimate partner abuse," a defense that has until now been limited to battered wives and girlfriends.
In court documents, Kruzan said her pimp, George Gilbert Howard, began wooing her when she was 11 with ice cream, roller skating outings and rides in his Cadillac. Along the way, Kruzan said Howard sexually assaulted her and coerced her to work the streets of Riverside in Southern California as a prostitute beginning when she was 13.
Kruzan said in her clemency application that when she entered the motel room that night in 1994, all "the fear, anger and panic from all of the past abuse exploded inside of me and I shot him." Howard, 36, died of a neck wound.
Her lawyers are seeking a reduction of her first-degree murder conviction to manslaughter, which would mean her immediate release or a new trial. They contend her case should fall under a 2005 California law enabling domestic violence victims serving lengthy murder sentences to seek shorter ones if their attorneys had failed to invoke domestic violence as a defense.
Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach will decide whether to free her, schedule a hearing or do nothing, letting her life sentence stand. Zellerbach, who has until Sept. 18 to decide, declined comment.
Meanwhile, courts in Florida, California and elsewhere are beginning to examine yet another wrinkle of "extreme" sentences for juveniles: the "de facto" life sentence.
On Thursday, the California Supreme Court unanimously overturned a 110-year sentence of a 16-year-old gang member Rodrigo Caballero for attempted murder, ruling it was essentially an unconstitutional life sentence. The court called on lawmakers to prohibit juvenile prison sentences for non-homicide crimes without a meaningful chance for parole.
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