Sarah Gonzales-McLinn appears May 25, 2021, in Douglas County District Court to accept a deal that reduced her first-degree murder sentence from a Hard 50 to a Hard 25. (Mackenzie Clark/The Lawrence Times)
TOPEKA — The state Department of Corrections’ prisoner review board forwarded a recommendation to Gov. Laura Kelly on the executive clemency application of a Kansas woman convicted in the slaying of a man who allegedly sexually assaulted her for months, state officials said.
The Department of Corrections declined to reveal Monday the review board’s assessment of Sarah Gonzales-McLinn, a former Lawrence resident convicted of first-degree murder and serving a 25-year prison sentence in the death of Hal Sasko. He was brutally murdered by Gonzales-McLinn, who was a teenager at the time. The Douglas County District Court jury didn’t hear evidence at trial pointing to Sasko’s abuse of Gonzales-McLinn.
“The prisoner review board has completed its review and recommendation for this clemency request. Additional review and a final decision are pending,” said David Thompson, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.
The prisoner review board referred Gonzales-McLinn’s clemency application May 12 to the Kansas Department of Administration, which was to coordinate with the governor’s office. Kelly could accept or reject the review board’s recommendation.
A group advocating for Gonzales-McLinn applied for clemency in December. Prior to this case, the state’s prisoner review board recommended clemency 27 times since 2011.
Kelly and four governors before her made limited use of clemency authority. The Democratic governor, elected to a second term in November, granted clemency to eight people in 2021, including one recommended by the state review board. Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer granted clemency three times during his one year in office from 2018 to 2019.
GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who served as the state’s chief executive from 2011 to 2018, issued one pardon in 2017. Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, pardoned four people from 2009 to 2011. He replaced Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who issued one pardon from 2003 to 2009.
Gonzales-McLinn, 28, has been incarcerated at Topeka Correctional Facility since September 2015. Under a sentence that was adjusted downward from 50 years to 25 years, she could be released from prison in 2039. A plea agreement resulting in that reduction required Gonzales-McLinn to waive appellate rights. Her options were limited to seeking extraordinary relief through the review board and a Kansas governor.
Sasko, 52, was found dead Jan. 17, 2014, inside a house in Lawrence he shared with Gonzales-McLinn, who was 19 years old at time of the slaying. She said in an interview with Kansas Reflector that she met Sasko when she was 15 and moved in with him at age 17 when he was 50. She alleged Sasko provided her drugs and alcohol. He made sex with him a condition of remaining in the home after she turned 18 and ordered her to repay thousands of dollars he spent on medical and living expenses, she said.
Confidential law enforcement reports indicated Sasko had sought relationships with girls like Gonzales-McLinn who had been “abused, battered, dumped” or had “trouble with the law.”
Sasko’s former wife, Anne, urged the prisoner review board to recommend the state keep Gonzales-McLinn behind bars while focusing on “true victims in this case” and taking into account Gonzales-McLinn “chose to stay, then she chose to murder.”
Joan Wagnon, the first woman mayor of Topeka, a former member of the Kansas House and past leader of the state Democratic Party, has worked with the group of people supporting Gonzales-McLinn’s clemency request.
Wagnon said keeping Gonzalez-McLinn behind bars for a quarter century wouldn’t serve interests of justice, but acknowledged the case was complex and the clemency application equally complicated.
“I think the governor is a pretty gutsy lady and as such someone willing to stand up for women and for justice,” Wagnon said.
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