Klaas killer waits at the mercy of 'three strikes' law

The killer of Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old California girl kidnapped from her home and murdered in 1993, is now waiting to hear whether the jury that convicted him will also impose the death penalty. But the law that her death inspired is once again at the centre of a divisive and politically charged battle.

Ex-convict Richard Allen Davies confessed to abducting and killing Polly shortly after he had been paroled. In 1994 the Klaas case led to the passage of the notorious "three strikes and you're out" law, mandating prison terms of 25 years to life for repeat offenders. Wide discomfort among judges and some prosecutors led the California Supreme Court last month to rule that judges must retain the flexibility to impose lesser sentences.

Surveys show that of long prison terms automatically imposed on some 20,000 felons, 85 per cent were for non-violent crimes from burglary to shoplifting. Republicans in the California state assembly this week, however, rapidly passed a bill reinstating a slightly modified version of three strikes, citing the need to keep "liberal judges" in check. "We need the felons off the street. Real simple," said Assemblywoman Paula Boland.

The vote was split along party lines. The Bill sets the stage for a bitter partisan fight in the state Senate. With local elections approaching in November, Republicans plan to make the point that "Republicans are for law and order and Democrats aren't", said one legislator. The law, Democrats respond, violates "fundamental tenets of the administration of justice".

Supporters credit the law for a seven per cent drop in the state crime rate last year. Opponents say crime rates have dropped nationwide in the face of a declining number of teenagers and young men.

Three strikes has reportedly brought mounting pressure on juries. Defense attorneys, who usually avoid mention of a client's record, now make sure jurors know they are dealing with a three strikes case.

California's law defines certain violent or serious crimes as "strikes". Anyone with one strike convicted of a new felony gets a sentence twice the usual. The third strike brings a minimum 25 years, or a doubling of the standard term, whichever is greater.