Richard Allen Davis Trial: 1996
Richard Allen Davis Trial: 1996
Defendant: Richard Allen Davis
Crimes Charged: Murder, robbery, kidnapping, burglary, attempting a lewd act with a minor, and other charges
Chief Defense Lawyers: Barry Collins and Lorena Chandler
Chief Prosecutor: Greg Jacobs
Judge: Thomas Hastings
Place: San Jose, California
Dates of Trial: April 17-June 18, 1996
Sentence: Death by lethal injection
SIGNIFICANCE: The 1993 abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas stunned the nation. Her murderer, Richard Allen Davis, had a string of prior convictions, including two kidnappings. This case helped create public support for tougher sentencing laws for repeat felons. The Klaas kidnapping also focused attention on preventing child abductions and helped law enforcement officials improve their investigative techniques in such cases.
Apretty, dark-haired girl with a dimpled smile, 12-year-old Polly Klaas won fame for all the wrong reasons. Her face appeared in newspapers and on television screens across the country after she was kidnapped from her mother's home in Petaluma, California. On October 1, 1993, while Polly enjoyed a sleepover with two visiting friends, a man broke into the house and abducted her at knifepoint. Soon, a massive manhunt was under way.
For more than two months, thousands of volunteers combed the woods of Petaluma, looking for any signs of Polly. Fliers went out across America with her picture and a composite sketch of a suspect. The media soon dubbed Polly "America's Child," and the case stirred memories of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby in 1932. But unlike that celebrated incident, the Klaas kidnapping did not involve a wealthy, famous family. Polly's abduction reminded the nation that even a "typical" child was not safe in her own home.
The hunt for Polly finally ended on December 4. Police found her body in a shallow grave about 30 miles from Petaluma. She had been strangled. Officers were led to the scene by their chief suspect, Richard Allen Davis, who had recently confessed to kidnapping and killing the young girl.
A Sordid Past
Davis had an arrest record that stretched back more than two decades. He was convicted in 1976 for kidnapping and assaulting a woman and served five years in prison for that crime. In 1984, a second conviction for kidnapping and other charges brought a 16-year sentence; Davis served 8.
Twice after the Klaas abduction, police had had contact with Davis but did not connect him with the crime: About an hour after killing Polly, Davis drove his car into a ditch. Sheriff's deputies from Sonoma County stopped at the scene, and Davis convinced them he was merely a sightseer. The deputies had not received the description of the suspected kidnapper sent out by Petaluma police, and they let Davis go. A few weeks later, Davis was arrested for drunken driving. Police did not associate him with the composite sketch hanging on their office walls.
Police finally caught up with Davis after finding pieces of cloth near the site where Davis drove off the road on October 1. They arrested him on a parole violation. When police told him that a palm print found at Polly's home matched his own, Davis finally confessed to the crime. He told them that a combination of marijuana and alcohol had left him "toasted," and "things got fuzzy after that." Davis described how he let Polly out of the car so she could go to the bathroom. When she returned, he strangled her with a piece of cloth. "She didn't know what hit her," Davis said.
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.
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.