How The Kidnapping, Murder Of Polly Klaas Changed The American Criminal Justice System
The 12-year-old girl was snatched from her home during a slumber party and later found dead.
Polly Klaas was abducted from her home in California, and her murder would go on to change the criminal justice system.
On Oct. 1, 1993, 12-year-old Polly was having a slumber party with two friends at her family’s residence in Petaluma. While the three girls played a board game together, a man armed with a knife broke in, grabbed Polly, and fled with her.
At the time, Polly’s father wasn’t home and her mother was asleep. Polly’s two friends were unharmed.
“She was a vibrant, energetic, outgoing little girl with a great love of theater, a great love of family,” Marc Klaas told Fox News of his daughter. “The night Polly was kidnapped, I was in disbelief because I wasn't there. And I heard it through a phone call and I immediately thought, I need to contact the FBI.”
Hundreds of volunteers unsuccessfully searched for Polly. The FBI received thousands of tips about the case, but it would take until the following month for detectives to finally get a lead that would help them identify a suspect.
According to police, a woman in Sonoma County found a man’s sweatshirt and children’s clothing on her property and recalled that two months earlier she had reported a suspicious person in the area.
Investigators spoke with the man, Richard Allen Davis, and detectives on the Polly Klaas case believed he might be responsible for the girl’s kidnapping.
After his arrest, Davis confessed to killing Polly and showed investigators where he had hidden her body.
Polly’s father told Fox News that Davis was a career criminal who had been sentenced to over 200 years behind bars. “But he was out. He was a 38-year-old violent recidivist offender who was back out on the street after committing his second kidnaping,” Marc said.
In the wake of Polly’s death, and with the support of her father, lawmakers took a “tough on crime” stance. Many states, including California, adopted “Three Strikes and You’re Out” laws that allow judges to consider previous convictions and, in the case of third convictions, enhance sentences.
Despite Marc’s support for the laws, Polly’s two sisters, Annie Nichol and Jess, now believe the laws are often too extreme, The Guardian reported.
“There’s the trauma of losing Polly and then there’s the trauma of how her death was used to punish other people,” Jess said in 2022 of harsher sentences for some repeat offenders and the dramatic increase in mass incarceration since the 1990s. “We don’t want our pain to be used to punish anyone else … We’re on the precipice of repeating a really terrible history. And we don’t want people to make the same mistake.”
Annie said she believes that it’s “such an injustice that the sum of Polly’s life was turned into this harm for others.” She added, “The story that was told about Polly was used to pass these incredibly terrible laws, and it always felt like a distortion of the truth.”
The pair are now hoping to help refocus the justice system on prevention of violence, treatment and rehabilitation of criminals, and more resources for survivors.
“There’s an underlying assumption that the thing that victims want is the harshest sentencing for the people who caused harm. And that’s really the only option,” Jess said, according to The Guardian. “It’s this revengeful ‘eye for an eye’ culture. I’ve come to realize we don’t really have a ‘department of corrections and rehabilitation’. It’s a ‘department of punishment and revenge’.”
For more on this case, you can stream Motives & Murders: Cracking the Case "Who Took Polly Klaas?" on discovery+.
The AMBER alert system first debuted in 1996 as a collaboration between news media and police in Arlington, Texas. Named for Amber Hagerman, the alerts have helped find more than 1,000 abducted children.