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Legislating with a vengeance

Criminals in California now face life sentences after their third offence under the `three strikes, you're out' law. Richard Kelly Heft reports
Marc Klaas knows there are certain thoughts he should never think, the worst of which are about what happened to his young daughter at the hands of her killer.

Polly Klaas was 12 when she was abducted from a slumber party in sleepy Petaluma, California. Her accused assailant, Richard Allen Davis, who had two previous convictions for kidnapping, seized her at knife-point after binding the other girls with rope and threatening to slit the throat of anyone who made a sound.

Polly was found 65 days later. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death. It is not known how long she lived after being abducted, nor what horrors she endured during that time - no father should have to ponder such questions.

"I can't sleep on those nights," says Mr Klaas. "I try very hard not to think about that, but sometimes I can't stop myself."

The kidnapping of Polly Klaas, a beautiful girl with warm brown eyes, captured the nation's attention in October 1993. Within weeks, the Klaas family had received "several hundred thousand dollars" in donations to help in her search. Police and hundreds of volunteers launched the largest manhunt in US history before Davis was tracked down in December 1993.

By contrast, the murder of a another young woman in California, 16 months before, was barely noted beyond the small town where it occurred. In a state where 4,000 murders are committed every year, only a few receive the media attention they deserve.

"If it was mentioned in the LA Times, it was behind the pet obituaries," says the woman's father, Mike Reynolds.

Kimber Reynolds, 18, was about to enter her car, which was parked in front of a busy restaurant in Fresno. Two thugs, high on methamphetamines, rode up to her on a stolen motorcycle, pinned her against the door of her car and demanded her purse. When she refused, probably because she was in front a restaurant full of witnesses, one of the assailants drew a .357 magnum from under his coat, pointed it at her head and pulled the trigger. They left her purse on the roadside next to her body.

Though on the surface these killings are unrelated, they will forever be intertwined - through the campaign for criminal reform that swept California after Polly Klaas's abduction.

Californians will pay dearly for these deaths. The passage of the "three strikes you're out" bill last March, of which Mr Reynolds was the leading proponent and spokesman, was triggered by the Klaas murder. The bill, which mandates a 25 years-to-life sentence for a third felony conviction, will cost billions to implement. Estimates from the California Department of Corrections show the state will need to build 15 prisons over the next five years to hold the extra inmates, at a price tag of $4.5bn (£2.8bn). The prison population is projected to grow by more than 70 per cent as a result of this law.

When "three strikes" was reviewed by the California legislature, it was buried by the committee. Mr Reynolds and other supporters then decided to take the bill public and have it approved as a voter initiative. To do so required registering a 385,000-signature petition, but after weeks of campaigning the group had collected fewer than 20,000 names. Despite extensive efforts to raise the profile of the bill, including radio and television interviews and ballots distributed through newspapers, prospects for success within the allotted 150 days looked dim.

Then the body of Polly Klaas was discovered.

"The next day we couldn't answer the phones fast enough, we were getting 1,000 phone calls at a time. In fact, we cooked the phonelines," Mr Reynolds says. Eventually, the group brought in 18 operators to handle the requests to sign petitions.

"Three strikes" went on to become the fastest-qualifying voter initiative in state history, winding up with 840,000 signatures. Aware of the mounting popular support, the state legislature revived and approved "three strikes" on the day organisers submitted their petition.

Ironically, although his only child's death sparked the passage of the law, Mr Klaas has come out against "three strikes", which he says casts too wide a net and will put too many non-violent offenders behind bars. However, he says he will not waste time fighting to improve the law. His life's work is devoted to avenging his daughter's death by saving other children from a similar fate. To accomplish this, he had been working with the Polly Klaas Foundation, which he founded with the money that poured in after Polly's abduction. But Mr Klaas recently left the foundation, after months of feuding and the establishment of his own charity, which sought funds from many of the same donors.

While Mr Klaas's crusade has had its high notes - he was invited by President Clinton to the signing of the national crime bill, he has testified before Congress and become a respected commentator on child safety legislation - he remains deeply tormented by his daughter's death.

Few ties to his life before the abduction remain. He has given up his car rental business and says he finds it difficult to relate to old friends or to make new ones.

"Life after Polly's death has been hideous," he says "Polly meant more to me than anyone. What I have left is a closet full of clothes, an album of photos and memories that fade."

Asked for his feelings about the accused killer, Richard Davis, Mr Klaas does not hesitate: "I'd like to waste the f ..."

Mr Reynolds has dedicated himself to legislative reform since his daughter's death. "The question I have always asked is, `Where did the system go wrong and what can I do to straighten it out?' " He was with his daughter in the 26 hours she spent on life support before she died.

"Kimber's death has left a hole in our hearts," he says. "I made a promise that I would do what I could to make sure this didn't happen to another family. That's the promise I kept with `three strikes'."

Had the law already been in effect, his daughter's killers, with extensive histories of violent crime, would almost certainly have been behind bars at the time she was attacked.

Mr Reynolds is unconcerned that "three strikes" will lock up too many non-violent felons. In a recent Los Angeles ruling, Jeremy Dewayne Williams, a man with five previous felony convictions, was caught stealing a piece of pizza - and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Opponents of "three strikes" cite the case as one of many examples which show the law is draconian and will lock up too many people for the wrong reason.

Mr Reynolds disagrees. "The positive side of the pizza guy is that every prior felon in California sees that case on TV and says to themselves, `Goddamn - they aren't kidding.' They are saying `I better get outta this state'. "

But "three strikes" has spread rapidly since its approval in California. Similar measures are on the books in 14 states, with New Jersey and South Carolina approving such statutes just last month. The estimated tab in New Jersey? More than $2bn, with a three-time loser receiving a bone-chilling 40-year sentence. Chuck Haytaian, a New Jersey Assemblyman, says: "The concept is simple: commit three violent crimes and you will spend the rest of your life in prison."

Mr Reynolds continues to push for reform of California's justice system. His latest project, which has the blessing of the state district attorney's association, would allow non-unanimous jury verdicts - a 10 to two or even nine to three vote - in all but death-penalty cases. In California, 14 per cent of jury trials ended in hung juries last year, while in neighbouring Oregon, which allows non-unanimous verdicts, the result was less than 1 per cent.

This could be important with "three strikes" on the books as defendants are increasingly insisting on jury trials in the hope of acquittal, rather than accept a plea-bargained conviction.

Mr Klaas is directing his efforts at the development of databases to track and monitor violent felons and the promotion of sex-offender registration laws. He complains that due to the cost of "three strikes", funds are no longer available for preventive programmes such as New York's recently passed "Megan Kenka law". The law, named after a girl sexually assaulted and murdered by a convicted paedophile who lived across the street from her, makes it mandatory for sex offenders to register with the communities where they live.

"We've had some successes," he says. "But the price has been too high. Children shouldn't have to lose their lives to get these laws put in place. There are too many laws named after kids who are already dead."