'Three strikes' murder trial gets under way

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The Independent Online

Los Angeles

American trial watchers will this week be offered another notorious case to add to their collections along with those of OJ Simpson and Susan Smith, the mother accused of killing her two young sons.

Jury selection is under way in the trial of the alleged murderer of Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old girl whose abduction and murder in October 1993 prompted the introduction of the "three strikes" law that carries a mandatory life sentence.

Richard Allen Davis, 41, is charged with strangling Polly after kidnapping her at knife-point from her bedroom in Petaluma, California, as her mother slept next door. Her body was found two months later in a ditch beside a highway.

Davis, who apparently confessed to police but will plead not guilty, is a career criminal whom court psychiatrists have concluded has a sociopathic personality, deriving pleasure from harming others. If convicted, he could face the death penalty. The trial, which will be held in the small town of Santa Rosa, 50 miles north of San Francisco, is expected to last five months and will hear from about 100 witnesses.

The case caused deep revulsion in the liberal community and lawyers fear that the heavy pre-trial publicity may have tainted the jury pool with an appetite for retribution. "They are anticipating that many jurors will ask to be excused because they are just unable to be fair and unbiased," said Barry Collins, Davis's lawyer.

The details of the case horrified the nation. Polly Klaas was at a slumber party with two girls when Davis allegedly broke into the house, tied and gagged the girls at knife-point and kidnapped her.

An hour after police were alerted, local deputies detained Davis 27 miles away and questioned him for 40 minutes. Although they were suspicious, the police deputies did not know that Davis was a paroled kidnapper and were unaware of the police bulletin and composite sketch that had already been issued.

They accepted his explanation that he was doing some midnight sightseeing - on a Friday night in winter - and helped him to free his car from the dead-end road where it was stuck. The next day the deputies still failed to connect the sketch and news of the kidnapping with the man they had questioned.

Despite an intensive search, it was two months before the property owner found hair and blood on her land and police connected Davis to Polly's abduction. He was arrested two days later on an Indian reservation - for a parole violation - and eventually led police to the girl's body.

The subsequent investigation revealed that Davis had been arrested more than three dozen times for offences ranging from armed robbery to kidnapping and sexual assault. After successive prison terms he became more violent and by 1976 a probation officer had described his ''accelerating propensity toward violence''.

Such clear warnings contributed to the outcry over the Klaas case and Davis became the symbol for a justice system that could not only describe a repeat felon as having a ''chaotic and unsatisfactory childhood'' that resulted in ''an understandably poor self-image'', but also was incapable of keeping a violent offender from repeating his crimes.

Following the revelations, California passed a bill that prescribes a mandatory life prison sentence for people convicted of three felonies, popularly known, in a phrase borrowed from baseball, as "three strikes and you're out''.