Polly Klaas is abducted at knifepoint by an intruder in her Petaluma, California, home during a slumber party with two friends. Despite a massive manhunt and national attention, there was no sign of the missing 12-year-old or her abductor for two months.
Eventually, investigators found some children’s clothing in the northern California woods, along with a car that had gotten stuck at this same location on the night of the kidnapping. The car was traced to Richard Allen Davis, who had previous convictions for burglary, assault, and kidnapping. He had been sentenced to 16 years in prison but had managed to get out on parole in a fraction of that time. The California justice system subsequently received heavy criticism for his release, including complaints from three of his past victims who appeared on ABC’s television show Primetime in January 1994.
In the initial investigation, the FBI forensic team had found only one useable piece of physical evidence at the Klaas home: a partial palm print on Polly’s bunk bed. The print was matched to Davis, who confessed to the crime and led detectives to Polly’s burial spot when faced with the evidence against him.
During his trial, Davis became a public figure representing the evils of crime. His face was featured in advertisements for at least three Republican candidates in California congressional races who sought to portray their opponents as “soft” on crime. When he was convicted of murder in May 1996, Davis extended both of his middle fingers to a courtroom camera. When he was sentenced to death four months later, he jumped up in the courtroom and accused Polly’s father, Marc Klaas, of molesting her. Klaas lunged at Davis but was stopped by police. There is no evidence to support Davis’ accusation.
After his daughter’s murder, Klaas lobbied to bring about California’s “three strikes” law, which would give life terms to criminals with three felony convictions. However, the law was not drafted very artfully because it mandated that even those convicted on nonviolent felonies could be sent to prison for life. Upon learning about this aspect of the law, Klaas disassociated himself from the lobbying effort, but California voters overwhelmingly approved the ballot initiative anyway. In many cases since, individuals charged with crimes such as bigamy or even stealing a slice of pizza have faced life in prison under this law. Klaas and his family have become outspoken advocates in favor of revising the law, but lawmakers, wary of being dubbed soft on crime, have shied away from dealing with the issue.
Klaas has also become an outspoken advocate of the death penalty. He said of his child’s murderer: “The last thing Polly saw before she died was Richard Allen Davis’ eyes. The last thing Richard Allen Davis will see is my eyes, I hope.” Davis remains on death row at California’s San Quentin prison.