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Interview: Mark Klaas, Father of Murder Victim Polly Klaas, Speaks in Support of Death Penalty

| January 13, 2012
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This morning The California Report’s Scott Shafer reported on the attempt to end the death penalty in the state through a voter initiative. Last month we posted his full interview with Jeanne Woodford, the former San Quentin warden who presided over four executions but is now a vocal opponent of capital punishment and a leading force in the drive to have it repealed.

As part of today’s report, Scott Shafer also interviewed Mark Klaas, who gained national attention after the 1993 murder of his twelve-year-old daughter Polly by Richard Allen Davis, who had abducted her from her home in Petaluma. Davis was a parolee with a long criminal record, and the grim resolution of the case helped galvanize the successful effort to pass California’s Three Strikes and You’re Out Law in both the legislature and by voter initiative in 1994.

Klaas went on to found the KlaasKids Foundation, which advocates for child protection laws and offers recommendations and resources for keeping children safe.

Klaas opposes the effort to repeal the death penalty in California. Here is an edited transcript of Scott Shafer’s interview with him:

What are your thoughts on the ballot measure to repeal the death penalty?

It seems to me that it’s a waste of time and money. I believe the death penalty abolitionists have done a tremendous job of effectively killing the death penalty in California administratively, so I don’t know why they need a ballot measure to repeal it.

I believe if it gets on the ballot, it will probably be defeated, simply because Californians and Americans have consistently supported the death penalty by pretty big numbers; I believe now it’s in the mid-60s.

When you say anti-death penalty advocates have administratively killed it, what do you mean?

The best way to illustrate that is to point out that there are maybe 750 or more individuals on death row in California, a state that’s executed 13 people in the last 30 years. That’s what I mean.

There’s various mechanisms  to do that. The one that’s being utilized right now is the idea that the administration of the lethal cocktail in the execution process may cause pain to the individual being executed.

For the life of me, I don’t understand why anybody is concerned about the last 10 minutes of a death row inmate’s life, about whether that individual is feeling pain or not. It doesn’t make any sense to me. These are people who are being executed for having committed absolute atrocities against innocent people.

You and your family suffered a tremendous loss with the death of your daughter Polly. Richard Allen Davis has been on death row for sometime now. How would this law, if it were to pass, affect him, and what are your thoughts about that?

There are many reasons I support the death penalty. But I can tell you, Richard Allen Davis told a psychiatrist that he spends his time in prison contemplating victims of his past crimes as he masturbates at least twice daily. I believe Polly and all the other girls and people he victimized through his long criminal history deserve peace of mind. And I believe they can’t get peace of mind until justice is administered, and in this case it’s the death penalty.

One of the arguments for the death penalty is that it brings closure to families of crimes. But Richard Allen Davis has been on death row since 1996…

I believe his execution would bring closure to my daughter. She is the one that he contemplates as he acts out in his prison cell. It’s not going to change my life one way or the other. But I don’t invest a lot of time or energy in thinking about Richard Allen Davis. He’s dominated my family’s life quite enough as it is. I’m content to see him at least be on death row and know that at some point he may have to face that final judgment.

What have other people who have witnessed the execution of a perpetrator of a crime against a family member told you? Did it make a difference?

It does make a difference. It’s about carrying out the law. It’s about the final judgment. Those individuals I’ve talked to -– family members who have witnessed executions — are grateful for the experience, sad that it had to come to that, but satisfied that justice has been fulfilled.

What do you mean they’re sad it had to come to that?

Well the taking of a life is not something that should ever be looked upon lightly. And nobody finds great joy in it, including the families of murder victims. And they know this better than anyone else. But it is the law, and it is a final judgment.

I think that the individuals on death row are some of the worst individuals that have ever lived. You don’t find yourself on death row unless you’ve done something really terrible.

Unless you’re there by mistake, which has happened…

It has happened. But we don’t know that anybody has ever been executed by mistake. But we do know that guilty people on death row who have been released back into society have killed again.

These individuals on death row have no consideration for other people’s humanity. They tend to be psychopathic and show no remorse for the crimes they have committed. I believe that as they walk that last mile and contemplate their own fate, they perhaps do understand better the value of life. I believe that’s a hard-earned lesson, but if it’s learned, then I think that’s added value to the death penalty.

The average length of stay on death row is at least 15 years. What do you think about the argument that because the death penalty appeal process is so long, a final judgment of life in prison without parole would provide a quicker resolution for victims’ families?

I believe that as long as these guys are allowed to exist they continue to have an influence. Charles Manson is a good example. He was on death row, now he goes through the parole process every few years. In an effort to impress Charles Manson, who quite frankly should have been executed, one of his followers attempted to assassinate the President of the United States. I think if Charles Manson had been executed, Squeaky Fromme never would have taken that drastic step. What is it exactly we’re trying to protect here?

I don’t know that giving a final judgment in the courtroom and suggesting that somebody will spend the rest of their life in prison without possibility of parole can be depended on. I don’t know that’s something we can believe, given the fact that death row inmates have been put back into society only to kill again, and certainly individuals who have been given life without possibility of parole, depending upon what is going on in society at the time, have been put back onto the streets.

Look at the current environment in California right now. Jerry Brown has put more convicted murderers back on the street through parole then the three previous governors combined. So I don’t trust the system.

Do you think the death penalty is a deterrent?

Absolutely. There have been plenty of studies that demonstrate a correlation between the number of murders committed in a year and the number of executions the previous year. The correlation, depending upon the study, is that anywhere from 3-15 fewer murders are committed as a result of executions.

That’s one way to measure the deterrence. Another way is the simple reasoning and logic of our species, that there are consequences for punishment. And if one small population of individuals realizes they might be facing death if they commit a certain crime, it might back them off from committing it. Even Alan Dershowitz, one of the great abolitionists, has said you can hire a hitman for less money in a state that doesn’t have the death penalty than in a state that does.

If Richard Allen Davis is put to death, how do you think you’ll spend that day?

I’ll spend the day in the execution chamber watching him die. And I would hope that the last thing he would see would be my eyes. Just as the last thing my daughter saw before he strangled the life out of her after he raped her were his eyes.

The thing that strikes me about this issue is the people who say the death penalty costs too much money and the appeals last too long — they’re the very same people who have created this environment to begin with.

There are fixes that could streamline the death penalty and make it move much more quickly. For instance, there are only a hundred or so lawyers qualified to handle death penalty appeals in the state of California. Yet there are somewhere between 175,000 – 200,000 lawyers in the state. It seems to me that out of that population you would be able to find people willing to do the training and become part of that process.

We can also look at the whole appeals process. Currently only the California Supreme Court is qualified to hear death penalty appeals. With this vast population of individuals on death row, that’s a process that gets backed up. In a lot of other states the appeals court is able to handle death penalty appeals, with a final review by the state supreme court. I think if California moved in that direction, we would find a way to streamline the process so these individuals wouldn’t have to linger on death row and justice wouldn’t be denied for decades.

How do you think Polly’s death and the way she died changed the way you think about criminal justice?

I’ve heard it said that a liberal is a conservative that hasn’t been mugged yet. I think I looked at criminal justice very differently. I didn’t realize the big lie that individuals would be sentenced to long sentences behind bars in the open courtroom but everyone in court except the public would understand that it had no relevance at all.

Richard Allen Davis had been sentenced to over 200 years behind bars prior to the crime he committed against my daughter. What was this guy doing on the street at 38 years old after the history of violence he’d perpetrated? So I think things like Three Strikes and Truth in Sentencing have served society well. After those policies became part of the process, we really saw crime drop dramatically in the US.

There’s another ballot measure being circulated, to reform Three Strikes and You’re Out. What do you think about reforming Three Strikes, so that the third strike would have to be a violent crime?

I think Three Strikes is a marvelous piece of legislation. A lot of people blame it for prison overcrowding, but the reality is there are around 10,000 individuals in the California prison system on a third strike out of a population of something like 150,000. The idea that the third strike needs to be violent defeats the purpose of what Three Strikes is about. It’s about stopping the victimization, about these guys understanding they face the possibility of 25-to-life if they continue to commit crimes, yet they continue to commit crimes.

They might get caught for a petty crime, as some of them do, or they might get caught in the commission of a violent crime. But the penalty enhancement is supposed to motivate these guys to do the right thing. And if they’re not doing the right thing, then you want to get a hold of them and move them out before they rape somebody, before they murder somebody, before they commit assault and battery on somebody.

You can click here for Scott Shafer’s interview with anti-death penalty advocate Jeanne Woodford.

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