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Davis Convicted of Murdering Polly Klaas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Allen Davis was found guilty Tuesday of the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, making him subject to the death penalty.

Davis, 42, listened impassively as the verdicts were read, then turned and made an obscene, dismissive hand gesture to a television camera that was broadcasting the proceedings from inside the San Jose courtroom.

“He was showing us what he is, just a contemptible little punk who’s been flipping off society since Day 1,” Marc Klaas, Polly’s father, said afterward.

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Polly’s family, including her father, had been sitting in the front row of the courtroom holding hands as the court clerk read the verdicts. B.J. Klaas, Polly’s grandmother, quietly wept.

It was unclear if the jury--which will decide later if Davis should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole or to death--saw the gesture.

But prosecutor Greg Jacobs said he will use videotape of Davis’ action during the upcoming penalty phase if defense attorneys try to present evidence that Davis feels remorse for the murder.

The six-man, six-woman jury deliberated for 20 hours over five days before finding Davis guilty of all 10 charges, including special circumstance counts of kidnapping, robbery, burglary and attempting to commit a lewd act on a child. Conviction on any one of the special circumstances would have made Davis subject to the death penalty.

“We’re halfway home,” Marc Klaas said, adding that the jury “brought the hammer of the law down on this son of a bitch as hard as it’s ever going to come.”

Barry Collins, the public defender representing Davis, said the verdict was not a surprise. Collins had conceded from the outset of the trial that his client killed Polly after kidnapping her, but said there was no evidence of his committing a lewd act.

Collins, in fact, said he was encouraged by the length of the deliberations. “The fact that the jury was out [so long], that they struggled, that they had lots of questions, means that they’ll probably do that in the next phase,” he said. “That’s to our advantage.”

The penalty phase is scheduled to begin July 1.

Prosecutor Jacobs admitted some concern over the time the jury took, but said he calmed down after thinking it over. “Jurors take a long time to reach a verdict in any serious case,” Jacobs said.

Still, Jacobs said he was “very relieved” after hearing the verdict.

Davis was found guilty of murdering Polly after abducting her at knifepoint from her Petaluma bedroom as she played with two other girls during a slumber party on Oct. 1, 1993. Her mother, Eve Nichols, was sleeping in the next room.

After an all-out manhunt, Davis was taken into custody and confessed, leading police to Polly’s body Dec. 4, 1993.

In a tragic twist, Davis told police during his confession that Polly was alive in nearby woods when Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies helped free his car from a ditch on a rural road 27 miles from Petaluma. The deputies, apparently unaware of the abduction 90 minutes earlier, sent Davis on his way. Davis said he returned to collect Polly and later strangled her.

Collins said he will present evidence during the penalty phase that Davis, who has spent 17 of the last 21 years behind bars, was the product of an abusive childhood and the cruelties of prison life.

He based his defense, which took only a day, on his contention that Davis should not be found guilty of the lewd act charge and called the prosecution’s contention that Davis tried to molest Polly “pure speculation.”

The lewd-act charge was a key component of the trial. Collins told reporters that if jurors did not believe Davis attempted to molest Polly, they might spare his life.

In his closing arguments, Collins said Davis had planned only to commit burglary when he broke into Polly’s home.

“The tragedy that occurred afterward was exactly that,” Collins said.

But Jacobs portrayed Davis as a sexual predator who had stalked Polly for weeks and carried pre-cut nylon strips into the house to bind the girl and two friends who were staying overnight.

“Burglars don’t go into houses and tie up females with cut-up women’s undergarments,” Jacobs argued.

Prosecutors said that Polly’s body was too decomposed to show evidence of any molestation, but that the attack fit a pattern Davis had established in earlier assaults on women.

Several times during their deliberations, jurors passed questions to the judge that indicated there was some uncertainty over one or more of the special circumstance charges. Because of the upcoming penalty phase, however, the jurors were not allowed to speak out Tuesday to explain what those uncertainties might have been.

From the night Polly was kidnapped, the case attracted enormous attention. Pictures of the girl’s smiling, freckled face were put on storefront windows and telephone poles throughout Northern California and spread throughout the nation via the Internet--the first such use of that medium. Police and volunteers searched for her for two months.

News of Davis’ arrest and confession plunged Petaluma into mourning.

When it was learned that Davis had a long criminal record--including previous assaults on women--and was on parole at the time of the crime, angry activists turned their energy to passage of California’s “three strikes” law, which requires people convicted of three serious felonies to serve a minimum of 25 years in prison.

Davis’ trial initially was set to begin in Sonoma County in September, but a judge ruled that the extensive pretrial publicity precluded him from getting a fair trial in the county where the slaying occurred. The case ultimately was moved to Santa Clara County, and jury selection began in San Jose in February. Opening arguments began in April.

During the trial, jurors saw Davis’ videotaped confession to police and heard emotional testimony from women Davis had assaulted in the past. The two girls at the slumber party with Polly when she was abducted identified him in court.

One of the trial’s most riveting moments came when jurors heard the frightened voice of Polly’s mother on the 911 call to police the night her daughter was kidnapped.

Marc Klaas and his parents sat in the courtroom throughout the trial.

“We were all having very mixed emotions” as the guilty verdicts were read, the girl’s father told reporters afterward. Hearing the counts read one by one, he said, “reminds us of what happened to Polly in very graphic detail.”

Defense experts who had followed the proceedings said Collins had little choice but to mount a minimalist defense.

If Collins had succeeded in persuading the jury that there was a reasonable doubt when it came to the molestation, criminal defense attorney Gil Eisenberg said, he stood a chance of persuading the jury during the penalty phase to sentence Davis to life imprisonment.

“The lewd act is the most repulsive and dramatic to the jury,” Eisenberg said.

Davis maintained that he was high on beer and a marijuana cigarette laced with PCP the night that he broke into Polly’s home and said he had no idea why he took the girl. In his confession, he said he strangled her after realizing he would be returned to prison if she identified him.

Peter Keane, chief assistant San Francisco public defender, said Collins’ trial tactic was “excellent.”

“The only thing that this defense attorney can do is possibly save Davis’ life,” Keane said. “So he has to reserve all his ammunition, his efforts, his creativity, everything for the penalty phase.”

On Tuesday, Collins said he has given the prosecution a list of 30 witnesses he might call on Davis’ behalf during the penalty phase. Among them are several family members who would testify that Davis was an abused and neglected child with a history of drug and alcohol problems that resulted in his early brushes with the law.

Prosecutors, however, intend to argue that life in prison is not a harsh enough sentence for Davis.

Davis, Jacobs said, “feels comfortable in prison.”

Times legal affairs writer Maura Dolan contributed to this story.


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