Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence for Killer of Polly Klaas
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for the man whose abduction of a 12-year-old girl from her Northern California home, and subsequent murder of the child, led to the enactment of California’s Three-Strikes Law.
The court, in an option by Justice Joyce L. Kennard, rejected arguments that a Sonoma Superior Court judge should have excluded Richard Allen Davis’ admission to a police investigator that he murdered Polly Klaas. The trial was moved to San Jose due to intense pretrial publicity in Sonoma County, where the murder was committed and where efforts to select a jury were abandoned after six weeks.
Davis’ court-appointed attorney, Phillip Cherney of Visalia, argued that the statement was obtained in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights, which he had invoked four days earlier, after admitting that he had taken Polly from her Petaluma home. The court, however, said the statement was admissible because of exigent circumstances, as the police were still hoping to find Polly alive.
Prosecution evidence, including Davis’ own statements to police, established that the defendant—who had spent a substantial part of his life in prison for various offenses—grabbed Polly during a slumber party with two of her friends, as her mother slept down the hall.
An FBI agent testified that a fluorescence test indicated that a stain found on the child’s panties may have been semen, although further testing indicated that the stain either was not semen, or had degraded to an undetectable level. In statements to police, Davis indicated relief that semen was found on the victim’s clothing but not inside her.
Her body was found in a shallow grave 64 days after the kidnapping. Public revulsion at the crime, and widespread publicity about the defendant’s history of crime, including burglaries and violent attacks on women, led to the passage of legislation providing for a potential life sentence for an offender convicted of a new felony after two prior violent or serious felony convictions.
At trial, the defense conceded that Davis—whose palm print was found in the bedroom—had murdered the girl, but denied that he had, or tried to have, sex with her. Jurors found Davis guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances of burglary, robbery, kidnapping, and attempted lewd act on a child. He was also found guilty of false imprisonment, assault with a deadly weapon, and robbery—of clothing items—against the other two girls.
Kennard, writing for the high court, cited a series of California decisions articulating a “rescue” exception to the Miranda rule. The exception holds that police may question a suspect who has invoked Miranda rights if there is an urgent need to rescue a person whose life is in danger, under circumstances in which questioning the suspect is the only promising course of action and rescue is the primary purpose for the questioning.
The justice rejected the argument that police had no real reason to believe that Polly was alive more than nine weeks after she disappeared, and that the investigators’ real motive was to obtain a confession to her murder.
There have, Kennard noted, been a number of examples of kidnapped children being found alive months or even years after being abducted. In Polly’s case, she said, police had reason to hope for a favorable outcome, as they had discovered no evidence she was dead and the defendant had told the other two girls that he was only taking Polly because he wanted money.
Nor, the justice concluded, did the fact that police waited four days after Davis admitted taking Polly before pressing him to tell her where she was undercut the claim that they were still hoping to find her alive. The FBI, she noted, actively—but fruitlessly—spent that time searching.
Any error in admitting the statements, she added, was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Kennard explained that even if the statements were inadmissible, the physical evidence obtained as a result was properly allowed in, based on state and federal rulings that such evidence is not “fruit of the poisonous tree” when statements obtained in violation of the Miranda rule were not coerced. Since the physical evidence would have led to Davis’ conviction even without the statements, she declared, any error was not prejudicial.
The high court also rejected the argument that the trial should have been tried further from Sonoma County. (San Jose is about 100 miles from the Sonoma County seat of Santa Rosa.)
Court officials, she noted, identified three other counties that could accommodate the trial—San Diego, Los Angeles, and Fresno.
Survey evidence indicated less prejudice against the defendant in those counties than Santa Clara, Kennard acknowledged, while pointing out that publicity about the case ran statewide.
The evidence also indicated that Santa Clara residents did not have the kind of intense “personal involvement” with the case that caused it to be moved from Sonoma, where many potential jurors indicated that they or people they knew had participated in the search for Polly, contributed to a charity established in her name, taken measures to enhance their home security in response to publicity about the case, visited scenes associated with the crime, and/or listened to a broadcast of the memorial service, the justice said.
Deputy Attorney General Ronald Matthias argued the case for the state.
The case is People v. Davis, 09 S.O.S. 3095.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company