A Riverside woman who spent almost 20 years in state prison for gunning down her pimp when she was 16 years old, and whose case attracted widespread attention until she was released from custody almost a decade ago, was pardoned Friday by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Sara Kruzan, 44, was convicted in 1995 of killing G.G. Howard at a Riverside motel.
Her efforts to have her conviction reduced and regain her freedom became a cause celebre, with petition drives and demonstrations organized in her name, with supporters — including actresses Demi Moore and Mia Sorvino — arguing that she was a sexually abused child exploited by Howard.
“Ms. Kruzan committed a crime that took the life of the victim,” according to the governor’s clemency statement. “Since then, Ms. Kruzan has transformed her life and dedicated herself to community service. This act of clemency for Ms. Kruzan does not minimize or forgive her conduct, or the harm it caused. It does recognize the work she has done since to transform herself.”
The pardon does not expunge Kruzan’s murder conviction, but it does “remove counterproductive barriers to employment and public service, restore civic rights and responsibilities, and prevent unjust collateral consequences of conviction, such as deportation and permanent family separation,” according to the governor’s office.
In 2013, Kruzan’s attorneys successfully won a reduction in her 1995 conviction, from first- to second-degree murder, with a special- circumstance allegation being nullified.
The modification changed her sentence from 25 years to life to 19 years to life in prison, and the defendant became eligible for parole by mid-2013. The State Parole Board heard her request for release and approved it, without objection from then-Gov. Jerry Brown, resulting in her being freed on Oct. 31, 2013.
In March 1994, the then-teenager arranged to meet the 36-year-old Howard at the Dynasty Suites on Iowa Avenue, where she shot him through the neck, stealing his $1,500 cash and sports car and leaving him dying on the floor of the motel room.
Kruzan was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder with a special circumstance allegation of lying in wait, and she was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Before he left office, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted her sentence to life with the possibility of parole. Kruzan’s lawyers forged ahead with appeals to have the details of her case reviewed again in light of the fact that she might be eligible for an “intimate partner abuse” defense, which at the time was a relatively new legal strategy in California comparable to a defense based on “battered woman’s syndrome.”
After repeatedly opposing Kruzan’s appeals, the Attorney General’s Office in May 2012 abruptly backed off its position that Kruzan and Howard had been in a business relationship as prostitute and pimp, conceding she could have been the victim of child exploitation and abuse.
Kruzan alleged Howard sexually assaulted her twice before putting her to work on the streets at the age of 13. Between ages 11 and 13, Howard had taken an interest in her, providing her money, ice cream and other favors to win her trust, according to Kruzan’s supporters.
Her defense at trial was that her new pimp, James Hampton, had ordered her to kill Howard and threatened her life if she didn’t follow through.
Kruzan became what state corrections officials described as a model prisoner, providing counseling to other inmates while living in the “honors” dormitory at Chowchilla State Prison.