Three strikes and some doubt

Halfway through the documentary "The Legacy: Murder & Media, Politics & Prisons" (broadcast 11 p.m. Saturday, June 5 on WMFE-Channel 24) Marc Klaas (father of the murdered Polly Klaas, says simply, "It seemed like a movement that I should be involved in." He's talking about the 1993 campaign in California for a "three strikes and you're out" law, which would automatically put third-time felons behind bars for 25 years to life. Gov. Jeb Bush just signed a version of this legislation into law here in Florida.

Polly Klaas was abducted and murdered by Richard Allen Davis, a man with enough prior convictions (rape, assault, kidnapping) to make anyone horrified. By the time Polly Klaas' body was found, the three-strikes campaign was under way, headed by Mike Reynolds, whose daughter Kimber had been shot and killed, also by a repeat offender.

As Marc Klaas explains, "There was nothing but anger against the person who committed the crime against Polly, and at the system that had allowed him to be in a position to do something like that." So why wouldn't Klaas support three strikes wholeheartedly, unflinchingly?

And he did. For a while. "The Legacy" is a precise, engaging account of how Marc Klaas, a man with more right than most to be vengeful, eventually came to the conclusion, "We had to distance ourselves from this [three strikes] law as much as we could."

This documentary, the season's first installment in PBS's provocative "P.O.V." series, uses archival footage and sit-down interviews with the key figures, who convey their recollections so thoughtfully and so intently, it's hard not to find the cumulative story compelling. Impressively, "The Legacy" proves that a complicated issue with several angles of approach can be presented lucidly -- unlike most politics in general, and the three-strikes initiative in particular, which got swarmed over by anger, fear and election polls.

The documentary shows how both families got substantial help during their tragedies from the media: Mike Reynolds' radio-talk-show pleas for information about the murderer resulted in a tip quickly called in to the police, and outlets ranging from local TV to "America's Most Wanted" contributed to the enormous manhunt organized after Polly Klaas' kidnapping. Later, though, the media, with its knack for latching onto a single, simplified message, became an ally for Reynolds in his three-strikes campaign and a thorn for Klaas in his mission to explain the full ramifications of the legislation.

Three strikes was presented to California's voters as a clean-sweep way of getting violent offenders off the street. "That was the only message that was ever given out," Klaas says in exasperation. The reality was that the law applied to several classes of nonviolent offenders, such as "residential burglars," who under the law would receive a ridiculously long sentence for, say, stealing a bike out of a garage.

The perversity of such a wide-net approach is expressed by Joe Klaas, Polly's grandfather and the documentary's most animated interviewee: "I think it's obscene to equate stealing a child with stealing a stereo," he says, later adding, "You don't have to put half the population of the state in prison to get at people like [Richard Allen] Davis. All you've got to do is get at people like Davis."

Added to Marc Klaas' dismay over the misguided legislation was his outrage over the fact that the law's supporters continued to invoke his daughter for their cause. "It was such an easy call," quips one radio executive. "You had a dead 12-year-old girl."

The intense emotions released by Polly Klaas' murder overwhelmed any talk about the wrongs inherent in three strikes. For example, a judge interviewed in the documentary explains the way that mandating specific sentences for crimes eliminates a judge's ability to size up individual situations, thereby seriously compromising the goal of true justice.

In the end, the effect of the three-strikes law appears questionable. Although violent crime in California declined 15 percent in the three years following the law's passage, violent crime in states without three strikes decline the same amount or more.

Here in Florida, crime has been steadily decreasing, and effective criminal-justice legislation has been passed in recent years, such as a law requiring prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Yet state representatives and Gov. Bush, ever fearful of looking lax, pushed through a three-strikes law this year. Florida's law, unlike California's, at least specifically limits itself to violent felonies, but the serious problems with one-size-fits-all sentencing continue to be glossed over. "Whatever its ultimate impact on crime in this state," notes Larry Spalding, the Florida ACLU's legislative counsel, "three strikes was a great sound bite."

The Klaas family avoided turning their unimaginable anger and horror into indiscriminate rage, and this is worthy of nothing but the highest admiration. Public defender Stuart Rappaport notes near the film's end, "Three strikes says, ‘I don't care what the issues are, I don't want to know anything.'" The Legacy shows that such an easy way out is not only lazy, it's offensive.

Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.