The perfect pretext

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The perfect pretext

Review by Sean Healy

The Legacy: Murder and Media, Politics and Prisons
Written, directed and produced by Michael J. Moore
Screening on SBS, Sunday, May 21, 8pm

In life, Polly Klaas was a pretty normal, 12-year-old, white girl; in death, she became the poster child for the harshest piece of crime legislation in the Western world, California's "three strikes and you're out" law.

In 1993, Polly was kidnapped while at a slumber party in a small California town, sparking the largest hunt in US history. Thousands of people took part in the search for Polly, sitting on phone lines, pasting up flyers, scouring the backwoods.

Weeks later, her abductor, Richard Allen Davis, turned himself in to police and revealed where he'd buried Polly's body. Davis was a serious repeat offender and had already served time for rape and kidnapping.

The Legacy by Michael J. Moore is not so much about Polly or what happened to her but how she was used by politicians, the media and right-wing forces to bring in a law which cracks down, not just on violent repeat offenders, but even on petty criminals.

Before Polly was killed, three strikes had no chance of passing through the California legislature; it was, in the words of one analyst interviewed by Moore, "a dog".

Three strikes legislation specifies that, if an offender has previously been imprisoned for a felony (a "strike"), the sentence on a second felony will automatically triple. A third felony will automatically attract a sentence of 25 years to life.

The principal drafter and front man for the law was Mike Reynolds, whose own 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, was murdered in 1992. He drafted the law at a backyard BBQ attended by California governor Pete Wilson and other senior legislators, judges and prosecutors.

Before Polly's death, three strikes was nowhere. It was rejected by legislative committee and was not particularly popular, especially after federal agents stormed the Branch Davidian complex at Waco, Texas. Reynolds had all but given up on collecting the 400,000 signatures he needed to put three strikes legislation to a referendum.

After her death, Reynolds and his supporters were able to turn a community's grief at a young girl's death into support for vengeance against violent criminals, and into support for three strikes.

Talkback radio fired up, most Republican and many Democrat politicians jumped on the bandwagon and suddenly people were driving 100 kilometres to collect petitions to get three strikes onto the ballot. Sane voices were silenced.

In the beginning, Polly's father, Marc Klaas, supported three strikes legislation — why wouldn't he? It was going to put people like Davis away for good.

Then Polly's grandfather, Joe, looked at the legislation and found that it applied not only to rapists, murderers and kidnappers, but also to burglars, bar brawlers and drug offenders. This is noticeable in the documentary: at a certain point, advocates of three strikes stop talking about "violent offenders" and start talking about "violent and serious offenders".

In the San Jose Mercury, Marc Klaas wrote about the day his own view turned. He was driving through one of Los Angeles' black ghettos when another member of the three strikes committee turned to him and, gesturing at some of the young black men on the street, said "This is how we are going to take care of these people".

When Klaas supported three strikes, he found it easy to gain favourable media. Later, as an opponent, it was harder. Wilson had attended Polly's funeral but now he was telling Klaas, "You don't know how the victims feel".

Powerful forces were now on board the three strikes campaign: the Republicans, Wilson himself (who managed to turn around the lowest popularity figures for any California governor on the back of three strikes), talkback radio, even the National Rifle Association.

The NRA gave Reynolds $100,000 for his campaign, eager to divert attention from calls for gun control (after all, as their slogan goes, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people"). Amazingly, while three strikes was being put through, bills banning the sale of semi-automatic weapons were rejected.

In the end, the three strikes committee outspent Klaas and the "no" campaigners 58:1. The initiative was adopted by a 77% majority.

Since its introduction, three strikes has done exactly what its opponents predicted: California's prison population has soared, 80% of those sentenced under the law have been imprisoned for non-violent crimes (the first, Kendall Cook, received a life sentence for stealing a can of beer) and 40% of inmates are now black (whereas only 3% of the adult male population are black).

You can see the racial character of the law in this documentary: all the people filmed signing three strikes petitions (in lines stretching for blocks) are white and all the prisoners filmed are black. The tissue which prevents these white people from seeing that they've condemned these black people to life in prison is Polly Klaas.

This is an excellent documentary, not only because it sheds light on a devastating law but also because it shows how the powerful introduce such laws, not just in California but everywhere else: by exploiting comfortable white people's naive sense of outrage.

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