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Richard Allen Davis Trial: 1996

Anger In The Courtroom

Davis's trial for murder, kidnapping, attempted lewd acts, and other charges began two and a half years later, on April 17, 1996. Difficulty in selecting a jury led Judge Thomas Hastings to move the trial from Sonoma County to Santa Clara County. When the trial finally began, Barry Collins, one of Davis's public defenders, admitted that his client had kidnapped and murdered Pollv Klaas. But the defense planned to show that Davis had not sexually assaulted Polly in any way. Collins hoped to reduce the chance of Davis's receiving the death penalty. Under California law, a capital murder must be accompanied by "special circumstances"—such as sexual assault and kidnapping. As the trial went on, the defense tried to depict the events of October 1, 1993, as a botched burglary that had gone horribly wrong.

Prosecutor Greg Jacobs, however, stressed the premeditated nature of Davis's crime, including his intent to commit sexual assault. Polly's body was too badly decomposed to yield physical evidence of an assault. Still, Jacobs argued that Davis had stalked Polly, and he called witnesses who testified to seeing Davis in the neighborhood days before the kidnapping.

On June 18, the jury found Davis guilty of 10 felony counts, including the charge of attempted lewd acts. A defiant Davis made an obscene gesture as he left the courtroom. Two months later, the jury recommended that Davis receive the death penalty, having found special circumstances in the case. Judge Hastings accepted this recommendation.

At the sentencing hearing, Davis again shocked the courtroom with his antagonistic behavior. He denied attempting any lewd acts with Polly because, he claimed, the girl had told him her father, Mark Klaas, had sexually abused her. An enraged Klaas rose from his seat and lunged at Davis before being escorted from the court. Since Polly's abduction, Mr. Klaas had become a strong advocate for improving child safety and increasing penalties for criminals who targeted children. He had never been accused before of abusing Polly. After Davis's flip accusation, Judge Hastings said imposing a death sentence was usually very traumatic, but "you made it very easy today by your conduct." As of April 2000, Davis's sentence was waiting review by the state supreme court, as required by California law.

The Polly Klaas case led to important changes in the criminal justice system. In California, the incident kindled popular support for lengthening the sentences for repeat felony offenders. The so-called "three-strikes" law was passed in 1994, requiring that criminals receive 25-years-to-life sentences for a third felony conviction. About 30 other states have since passed similar laws.

For police officials, the case spurred new techniques for tracking lost or abducted children. California now requires all missing children reports and descriptions of suspects to be broadcast on all radio channels, to officers of every jurisdiction. Law enforcement officials also have better access to the records of convicted criminals. On the federal level, the FBI now works more closely with local officials on kidnapping cases, using methods developed during the Polly Klaas manhunt.

—i>Michael Burgan

Suggestions for Further Reading

Beck, Melinda and Andrew Murr. "The Sad Case of Polly Klaas." Newsweek (December 13, 1993): 39.

"Before Being Sentenced to Die, Killer Disrupts a Courtroom." New York Times (September 27, 1996): A16.

Bortnick, Barry. Polly Klaas: The Murder of America's Child. New York: Pinnacle Books, 1995.

"Klaas Jury Hears Taped Confession." CNN Interactive (May 1, 1996): http://www.cnn.com/US/9605/01/klaas/index.html.

"Lawyer Says Client Is Guilty in Klaas Case." New York Times (April 18, 1996): A18.

Rose, Bleys W. "Polly Klaas Abduction-Slaying Has Brought Flood of Reforms." Dallas Morning News (October 4, 1998): 7A.

Starr, Jr., Oliver. "The Case of Richard Davis." National Review (May 30, 1994): 34.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1995 to PresentRichard Allen Davis Trial: 1996 - A Sordid Past, Anger In The Courtroom, Suggestions For Further Reading