“Three Strikes and You’re Out” — that’s the no-nonsense message California voters sent to repeat felons when the nation’s toughest sentencing law passed by a landslide in 1994. Designed to keep repeat offenders off the streets, “Three Strikes” succeeded largely because of a frenzied media campaign led by two fathers of murdered children, Mike Reynolds and Marc Klaas. Yet, what began as an alliance forged by grief became a bitter rivalry as Klaas and Reynolds found themselves on opposite sides of this controversial issue.
POV, PBS’s award-winning showcase for independent non-fiction films, will broadcast The Legacy: Murder & Meddia, Politics & Prisons nationally on on PBS (check local listings) to kick off its 1999 season.
The riveting tale of one man’s crusade and another man’s struggle for redemption, the film tells the tumultuous story behind the passage of Three Strikes and poses profoundly important questions about our political process, the role of the media, and our increasing reliance on prisons to address problems of crime in our society. Written, produced, and directed by Michael J. Moore, the documentary follows an extraordinary sequence of events– from murders to manhunts to win-at-all-cost political campaigns–focusing on two fathers united by tragedy but driven apart by conflicting ideas of social justice.
When 12-year-old Polly Klaas was abducted at knifepoint from her suburban California home in 1993, concerned neighbors launched one of the biggest manhunts in history. Two months later, paroled felon Richard Allen Davis was arrested for her murder and outraged Californians cried out for justice. The discovery of Polly’s body brought an end to one of the most dramatic and high-profile missing person media events in television history. But as the film reveals, the desperate two-month search also thrust Polly’s father, Marc Klaas, into a political arena that would dominate his life.
Mike Reynolds, whose 17-year-old daughter, Kimber, had also been murdered by a paroled felon, transformed his own loss into a crusade for justice as the citizen proponent of the “Three Strikes” law, a tough-on-crime initiative which called for harsh sentences for repeat felons. Initially rebuked by legislators, he launched a signature drive to qualify “Three Strikes” as a voter initiative, with equally frustrating results. But when Richard Allen Davis was arrested, Reynolds asked Klaas to speak out in support of “Three Strikes.” Klaas agreed, and Polly became the unofficial poster child for “Three Strikes.” Galvanized by her brutal murder, voters channeled their anger into the fight for mandatory minimum sentencing. Fueled by talk radio hosts, Reynold’s initiative became the single most talked-about issue on the state’s agenda.
But the more Klaas learned about the law, the less he liked it. Klaas hadn’t understood the scope of the initiative and that it could impact nonviolent offenders. Two months after Klaas initially spoke out in favor of “Three Strikes,” he became the law’s most ardent opponent, and the bereaved fathers found themselves locked in a ferocious public struggle over the merits of “one-size-fits-all” justice.
Through revealing archival news footage and candid interviews with Reynolds, Klaas, and other key players in the battle over “Three Strikes,” including judges, legal analysts, and state officials, The Legacy illuminates both sides of this heated issue and reveals in stark and disturbing terms how criminal justice policy is debated and promoted in today’s media-saturated political climate. Despite the predictions of prison alternative advocates who pointed to the state’s already overcrowded prisons, and argued that creating new facilities would plunge California taxpayers deeply into debt for decades to come, politicians on all sides scrambled to climb on board the tough-on-crime bandwagon.
“Three Strikes” won handily, putting California at the forefront of a national trend of prison growth. By June 1998, one in five California inmates were sentenced under Three Strikes. Ninety percent of those sentenced actually had only one prior “strike” and were sentenced for nonviolent crimes in 81% of those cases.
“I had a feeling that, even though there was a lot of media coverage of Three Strikes, most people didn’t know what they were voting for, ” said filmmaker Moore. “So, I took a camera to the polling places and did some exit interviews. I was right, and horrified. I hope this film is a wake up call.”