Last week, I saw Django: Unchained, a film currently in theaters about an American slave who exacts justice from slaveholders. The audience let out a cheering roar each time slave Django came one step closer to claiming redemption in the face of slave masters. The movie is set in the antebellum South on the eve of the Civil War before the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation by which President Lincoln declared all Confederate slaves to be free. Now, 150 years after all Southern souls were said to be free, child sex trafficking victim Sara Jessimy Kruzan is still in prison for killing her pimp in 1994.
A tentative proposed settlement has been reached for Kruzan and will be revealed Friday by Judge Gary Tranbarger. Kruzan’s attorneys and Riverside County prosecutors agreed upon the settlement to resolve her request for a new trial. This might seem to be good news for Kruzan, her family and activists campaigning for her release, but it will most likely benefit both sides, ultimately demonstrating a disconnect between the Riverside Court and the will of the people of California. Californians have exhibited a virtually unanimous passion to combat sex trafficking with the passing of Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act (Prop. 35), which received the highest in-favor vote in state history in the November election.
Kruzan was convicted in 1995 for first-degree murder after she, at age 16, shot and killed her pimp who had beaten, raped and prostituted her since she was 11 years old. In 2011, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reduced Kruzan’s sentence to 25 years with the chance of parole. Several extensions have been granted regarding Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach’s decision to permit Kruzan a retrial, which she first requested last summer.
Kruzan’s case is a clear indication of how our society has changed in terms of human rights since her conviction 18 years ago. Beginning with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, landmark human trafficking legislation has been passed in 47 states and D.C. to criminalize human trafficking. Thus far, the Kruzan case has certainly brought more questions to light than answers: What are victims’ rights in human trafficking cases? How should human traffickers be penalized for soliciting children like Kruzan for sex today in California? Are the principles of the Emancipation Proclamation even in tact today, a century-and-a-half after it was first issued?
In 1994, Kruzan essentially had no options to claim justice because our society viewed most sex trafficking victims as prostitutes and not as prostituted girls and women, which criminalized sex workers by suggesting that they sold their bodies by choice and not by coercion. Case in point: “Teen prostitute kills pimp” was the headline of the first article written on Kruzan’s case, which by today’s human rights standards is not only misleading, but downright false. Children under age 18 cannot legally consent to sexual activity and therefore cannot be considered prostitutes. If a child has sex, it is rape, not prostitution.
Kruzan’s case is hardly about murder; it’s about slavery and violence against women and children. Surely if the court saw a case like Kruzan’s today, it would be inclined to consider the circumstances surrounding the child victim who shot and killed the man who raped, beat and sold her for sex. Should the Riverside Court reveal Friday that it sides with the same Draconian mores of the pre-Civil War era, it will prove that it is far out of touch with current human rights legislation and the pure will of the people of California. With this outcome, more questions would be raised: Is California a slave state in 2013? What does the Kruzan settlement reveal about California’s legal system?
I spoke with Kruzan’s aunt, Anne Rogan, on Tuesday, which was Sara’s 35th birthday. Rogan had just gotten off the phone with Kruzan, who spoke from the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla where she spent her eighteenth consecutive birthday behind bars.
“Sara was a wonderful, bright child and is a beautiful woman. She is in good spirits, all things considered,” said Rogan, who visited Kruzan on Sunday. “The year 2012 was a very difficult time for Sara. She was waiting, waiting, waiting … extension after extension … hope in light, then hope faded into darkness, time and time again. This took an extreme toll on her emotionally and she lost a lot of weight.”
Rogan, like so many in California and across the globe, remains hopeful for at least some amount of justice to be granted in favor of Kruzan on Friday.
“How can you be against a woman who has spent nearly half her life in jail after being exploited as a child sex trafficking victim?” Rogan asked, her stern voice ripe with perplexity. “How can you be against Sara’s freedom after she was already forced to be imprisoned under a pimp for so long?”
The story of Django also follows a female slave who was forced to service men sexually and was beaten and tortured, like Kruzan, for demonstrating even the slightest discrepancy. Moviegoers howled victoriously as this system crumbled under Django’s vengeful claim for justice. The success of the film proves that people are flocking to see it because they, too, have a fervent desire to see justice unveil for those who are righteous. If the Riverside Court decides to leave this same system in place in 2013, it’s not unlikely that it might find an angry mob on the steps of City Hall ready to exact justice in the name of Sara Kruzan.
Additional Sara Kruzan coverage by the Abolish Slavery Coalition:
- Life After Jail: Child sex trafficking victim Sara Kruzan’s future plans
- Sara Kruzan sentence reduced; eligible for parole this year
- Breaking News: Sara Kruzan hearing postponed
- Exclusive Interview: Sex trafficking victim Sara Kruzan’s family speaks out
About the Author
Melissa Grace Hoon is the Managing Editor for the Abolish Slavery Coalition. She is a victim advocate and a human rights journalist with a Master’s degree in American studies where she focused on slavery, gendered violence and victimization. She is a freelance reporter for the Orange County Register and volunteers with the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force.