By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California woman who has served nearly two decades in prison for murdering her pimp when she was 16, becoming the face of a campaign to reform the treatment of young offenders, could be freed this week after Governor Jerry Brown upheld her parole.
The impending release of Sara Kruzan, now 35, from the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla was hailed as a watershed moment by activists who have fought on her behalf for more than five years.
"This is a huge victory," said state Senator Leland Yee, who called Kruzan the poster child for a bill that became law this year allowing offenders sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed before age 18 the chance to petition for a new hearing on their sentence.
"She really epitomizes why it's so important to review a lot of these cases where kids are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole," Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco, told Reuters in an interview.
Kruzan, who advocates say was raised by an abusive, drug-addicted single mother, said in a 2009 Human Rights Watch video that she was sexually assaulted at age 11 by the man she would later kill.
Within two years, George Howard had her working as a child prostitute. In March 1994, two months after her 16th birthday, she shot him to death in a motel room in Riverside, California.
Kruzan lost a bid to stand trial as a juvenile and was found guilty of first-degree murder by a Riverside County jury. A judge sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Human Rights Watch video, in which she is seen expressing remorse for the crime and describing her grim life as a prostitute, drew widespread attention to her case.
The year after the video was released, then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted her prison sentence to 25 years to life, making her eligible to be considered for parole.
Earlier this year, the California Board of Parole Hearings found her suitable for release, sending their recommendation to Brown, who notified the board on Monday that he would not intervene to stop her from being released.
A spokesman for Brown said the governor would have no comment on the matter.
Yee said it was Kruzan's story that prompted him to author his bill and fight for its passage.
"She has freely admitted the calculated way in which she killed her pimp," he said. "I think anybody in their right mind would probably do the same. She did something that's horrible and she had to pay price. But she has turned her life around."
California prisons spokesman Luis Patino said Kruzan would likely be freed sometime within the next five days but that details of her release would be kept secret for her safety and that of the public.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)