Sara Kruzan was living in California’s Riverside County when she was first trafficked into sexual slavery by a local pimp at age 11. She was sexually abused for years by her pimp George Gilbert Howard until she fatally shot him when she was 16 on the orders of a local gangster who had set her up to rob him, Kruzan recently told Vogue.
Tried as an adult, Kruzan was sentenced in 1995 to life in prison without parole for the murder of Howard. She was 17. Sixteen years later, then California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted Kruzan’s sentence on his final day in office following outrage over the way abuse survivors were treated. In 2013, she was released on parole.
She had already served nearly two decades behind bars by the time she was released. At the time also, she had become a cause célèbre as her case had attracted several lawmakers and activists who were asking officials to take a second look at the kind of punishments meted out to people who commit crimes as juveniles, CBS News reported.
Besides being tried as an adult, the judge in Kruzan’s case did not allow evidence of past abuse to be presented during her trial, according to the Los Angeles Times. Leland Yee, a Democratic state senator at the time, called Kruzan’s case a “perfect example of adults who failed her, of society failing her. You had a predator who stalked her, raped her, forced her into prostitution, and there was no one around.”
On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California granted former inmate Kruzan a pardon for fatally shooting Howard, saying that Kruzan had “provided evidence that she is living an upright life and has demonstrated her fitness for restoration of civic rights and responsibilities.”
Newsom said that since the killing, 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,” Newsom wrote.
Kruzan told The New York Times how she felt after learning she had been pardoned. “I will never forget what happened that night and fully acknowledge what did, but I am immensely grateful to feel some relief from the burden of shame and social stigma,” she said via a statement.
Since her release in 2013, Kruzan has worked to adapt and recently released a memoir, I Cried to Dream Again, telling the story of her childhood, time in prison, suicide attempts and her fight for freedom.
“I had a traumatic home life with my mother and was groomed at 11, sexually exploited and trafficked at 13, and incarcerated at 16—just going back to the house where I grew up to prompt my memories for the book had me shaking,” Kruzan told Vogue. “But I realized that sharing my story truthfully and in detail would enable readers to understand the experience of trafficking through my eyes and gain insight into what that experience really felt like.”
She said she gets sad knowing how little it took for her trafficker to gain influence over her, using small gifts and “some unaccustomed attention” which made her feel noticed and important.
A recipient of a Stoneleigh Fellowship, Kruzan is however elated about the policies known as “Sara’s Law” named in honor of her.
“What Sara’s Law provides is an allowance for judges to take into account the circumstances of victims of child sex trafficking and exploitation who lash out against their abusers, to remove them from an adult judicial framework, and to offer more discretion in their sentencing,” she explained.
Kruzan said lawyer James Dold of Human Rights for Kids, who she met on her release, worked on this legal reform with her and gave it her name to help spare future children in her situation from the level of punishment she faced.