Criminal Law

Polly Klaas’s homicide fueled the 90s crime panic. Her sisters concern ‘we’re repeating historical past’ | California

Annie Nichol was seven years outdated on 19 March 1994 when she was dropped at the White Home to speak to Invoice Clinton.

With a stuffed dolphin by her aspect, the lady spoke to the president about her 12-year-old sister, Polly Klaas, who had been kidnapped 5 months earlier from the household’s residence in Petaluma, California, whereas Annie was sleeping close by.

Annie and Clinton watched footage displaying how she’d since booby-trapped her room with bells and ropes to cease intruders.

“Do you assume I’m going to dwell to develop up?” tv cameras captured her asking the president.

“You’re a courageous lady,” Clinton responded, including that he was working to verify individuals with “severe issues” would stay in jail.

At the moment, Annie is affected by the reminiscence. Polly’s kidnapping and subsequent homicide fueled a number of “powerful on crime” legal guidelines and a strong victims’ rights motion, which pushed America to have the best reported incarceration fee on the planet.

The assembly on the White Home, Annie stated, was a reminder of how her household’s story was exploited to develop mass incarceration and racial inequality in America.

“I had simply misplaced Polly and somebody had given me that query to ask, and it was a message that wasn’t mine. I used to be a scared child who had been by one thing I couldn’t even start to course of. Being put within the place of going to the White Home to be on this tv program and seeing Clinton begin crying – the disgrace of that have nonetheless overwhelms me. I used to be the proper particular person for use like that. What’s extra compelling than seeing this scared little lady?”

Annie and her older sister Jess are actually on a mission to reclaim their household’s legacy and undo the tough laws the tragedy that befell them sparked. They are saying they need a unique legal justice system, one which focuses on stopping violence; accountability, remedy and rehabilitation for individuals who trigger hurt; and care and providers for survivors.

Their message is pressing, the sisters say, as rising issues over crime in cities throughout the US for the reason that pandemic have led to acquainted requires extra punitive responses from pundits and a few politicians going through midterm elections.

“There’s the trauma of shedding Polly after which there’s the trauma of how her demise was used to punish different individuals,” Jess stated. “We don’t need our ache for use to punish anybody else … We’re on the precipice of repeating a very horrible historical past. And we don’t need individuals to make the identical mistake.”


On the night of 1 October 1993, Polly was enjoying a board sport at residence with two buddies when a stranger broke in and snatched her, leaving the 2 different ladies behind.

Jess and Annie, aged 12 and 6 on the time, recall fragments of the aftermath: the reporters camped exterior their door, the “Polly, we love you” T-shirts worn by everybody on the town, their visits with Winona Ryder, who grew up in Petaluma.

Two months after the kidnapping, the kidnapper led authorities to Polly’s physique.

Polly Klaas’s homicide fueled the 90s crime panic. Her sisters concern ‘we’re repeating historical past’ | California
Polly Klaas, Jess and Annie Nichol. {Photograph}: Courtesy of Jess and Annie Nichol

Polly’s story led to panic. American media coated each twist within the investigation of the “slumber celebration that turned a nightmare”. Commentators argued the “age of innocence had been misplaced” and that “the 12-year-old’s terrible destiny drove residence the disturbing message that children should not secure even in their very own bedrooms”.

By 1994, voters in California had accepted the Three Strikes and You’re Out legislation, which, impressed by the intensive legal file of Polly’s killer, established life sentences for all felonies if the defendant had two prior convictions for severe or violent offenses.

Variations of the legislation, which additionally doubled the sentence size for second strikes, have been adopted in 23 different states. In September 1994, Congress handed the infamous federal crime invoice, sponsored by then senator Joe Biden, which included a 3 strikes sentencing provision.

In California, Three Strikes contributed to an explosion within the state’s jail inhabitants. Greater than 7,500 individuals have been sentenced to life in jail inside the first decade after it handed, almost half of them for non-serious and non-violent offenses.

Annie remembers adults attempting to consolation her by speaking about locking individuals up, together with an officer who held her hand to the wall of the constructing the place the person who killed Polly was incarcerated: “He stated, ‘Look how thick these partitions are. Don’t you are feeling secure?’”


Marc Klaas, Polly’s father (however not Jess and Annie’s), had advocated for 3 strikes legal guidelines. However because the sisters grew older, they turned more and more uncomfortable with the California laws and their connection to it.

“Since I used to be 13, I knew it was incorrect, and it was irritating to see newspapers on the desk for a few years, and I form of stopped trying,” recalled Jess, now 41, on a current morning in Annie’s yard. With the sensationalized media and celeb help, she added, “It didn’t really feel proper getting consideration for Polly’s demise and being recognized and validated for that, and I used to be repulsed by my very own inner identification with it.”

In 2019, Jess watched thirteenth, Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the historical past of racial inequality within the US, which featured Polly’s story: “After I noticed the sequence from slavery to our present mass incarceration disaster, with Polly’s face proper there as one of many main causes incarceration took off within the 90s, I used to be shocked.”

“Lots of people see this historical past as one thing that’s separate from themselves, however in our case we now have a very deep connection to this disaster,” Annie, now 35, added. “It’s such an injustice that the sum of Polly’s life was changed into this hurt for others. The story that was instructed about Polly was used to move these extremely horrible legal guidelines, and it at all times felt like a distortion of the reality.”

Jess chilly referred to as the ACLU of California in 2019, telling a receptionist she and Annie wished to speak in regards to the legislation handed of their household’s identify and see if there was something they might do to assist repeal it.

The sisters felt some preliminary apprehension about talking publicly. That they had lengthy been intensely personal partly out of a need to not feed the true crime style obsession with Polly. They have been additionally conscious of their privilege as white survivors whose story had obtained intense consideration and have been cautious of taking over area whereas the overwhelming majority of victims of violence are individuals of shade whose instances by no means make headlines.

In addition they weren’t positive their voices would matter, a doubt Annie partly attributes to the best way the legal authorized system operates: “There may be this sort of paternalistic dynamic within the justice system, which co-opts victims’ tales and claims to characterize them with out truly listening to them or asking them what they need. It’s, ‘We’re going to deal with this for you and clear up this drawback. And now we fastened it’. It leaves victims feeling disempowered. And for some time, we felt powerless.”

Sisters Annie Nichol and Polly Klaas.
Sisters Annie Nichol and Polly Klaas. {Photograph}: Courtesy of Jess and Annie Nichol

The ACLU related the sisters to coverage consultants at Stanford college, and so they started to be taught extra about Three Strikes: that it was initially proposed because the “road sweeper” legislation, however was deemed too excessive till Polly’s demise; that it had been disproportionately utilized to defendants with disabilities and psychological sickness; that some individuals have obtained two strikes for a similar incident; that defendants bought life sentences for stealing pizza and child footwear; and that analysis had repeatedly urged there was no proof that Three Strikes decreased crime or deterred violence. At the moment, 45% of individuals serving life sentences with three strikes in California are Black, whereas Black residents make up solely 6.5% of the broader inhabitants.


In 2020, after the uprisings sparked by George Floyd’s homicide, the sisters began assembly with different crime survivors who have been disenchanted with America’s legal justice system.

One in every of them was Tinisch Hollins, who misplaced two of her brothers to violence and serves as government director of Californians for Security and Justice, a survivors’ advocacy group. Hollins grew up in San Francisco and remembered when her mom made her watch information stories about Polly so she would concentrate on the potential for abductions.

“The fear that my mom had when she referred to as me to look at the information of Polly Klaas was the identical form of terror that family and friends had after they talked about family members who had been arrested and have been probably going away to jail perpetually. There was this looming chance that you could possibly turn into a sufferer of the system in the identical approach you could possibly turn into a sufferer of crime.”

The sisters got here to view Three Strikes as a symptom of systemic issues and began publishing op-eds advocating for an alternate strategy to justice.

In addition they launched A New Legacy, a podcast named after their hopes to chart a unique legacy for Polly; they interview individuals combating to undo mass incarceration, together with individuals beforehand imprisoned below Three Strikes.

“There’s an underlying assumption that the factor that victims need is the harshest sentencing for the individuals who prompted hurt. And that’s actually the one choice,” Jess stated. “It’s this revengeful ‘eye for a watch’ tradition. I’ve come to comprehend we don’t actually have a ‘division of corrections and rehabilitation’. It’s a ‘division of punishment and revenge’.”


Jess and Annie’s advocacy is coming at a pivotal second. Whereas crime ranges stay under the historic highs of the early Nineties, the pandemic has introduced devastating spikes in gun violence throughout the US, and polls have proven that People report feeling much less secure.

Some police officers, pundits and media crime reporting have positioned the blame on reform efforts, together with “progressive prosecutors” who’ve sought to cut back incarceration, the “defund the police” motion and efforts to dismantle money bail so individuals aren’t jailed as a result of they will’t pay a charge.

There’s no proof any of those reforms have prompted crime or violence to extend – and there’s analysis suggesting the opposite – however within the lead as much as the midterms, Republicans and a few Democrats have argued for an elevated police presence, expanded punishments and a rollback of reforms.

“Listening to the form of fear-based rhetoric that’s taking on headlines and that politicians are spouting is so accustomed to what we grew up with,” Annie stated. “It will be really easy to fall again on all these failed options simply because there have been rising crime charges throughout a pandemic when individuals didn’t have secure locations to go, faculty packages have been shut down, and other people misplaced their jobs and houses. These pro-incarceration agendas have a tendency to take advantage of individuals’s fears and make individuals think about actually horrible issues. However arguably the worst factor that would ever occur to a household occurred to us. And if we will think about a greater future then I believe that’s one thing everybody can think about.”

Sisters Jess Nichol and Polly Klaas.
Sisters Jess Nichol and Polly Klaas. {Photograph}: Courtesy of Jess and Annie Nichol

They’re not alone amongst survivors. The youngsters of a murdered pastor in Tennessee just lately opposed prosecutors’ determination to cost the 15-year-old suspects as adults, saying it’s not what her mom, an activist, would have wished; the girl who helped create the intercourse offender registry after her son was kidnapped has since argued it has gone too far and is ineffective; and a few homicide victims’ family members have argued towards the demise penalty and in favor of the defendants’ launch after years behind bars.

Jess and Annie have been speaking to survivors about what they really want and need; their household had entry to monetary help, however they’ve met many survivors of shade who have been denied sufferer compensation from the state, together with victims of police killings, who aren’t thought of eligible. Many survivors fall into monetary crises amid grief and the aftermath of violence and wish time without work or relocation assist.

Survivors additionally need prevention. The sisters stated they wish to see the US reallocate a good portion of the estimated $180bn that the nation spends on police and prisons annually towards group sources, together with violence intervention, psychological well being care, restorative justice and providers for survivors, reminiscent of faith-based packages or trauma remedy: “Unaddressed trauma is among the main root causes of crime and violence on this society, and it completely helps public security to supply these providers to survivors,” Annie stated.

Annie stated she has additionally heard tales of survivors discovering peace in forgiving the individuals who damage them. However she is just not one in every of them: “It’s simpler for me to really feel hatred than compassion for the one who killed Polly. On the identical time, I do know that earlier than there was a person who did unfathomable hurt to our household, there was a boy who was damage and abused and uncared for and deserted by the social buildings that have been supposed to assist him. And I might somewhat have a system that might assist and shield that little one from turning into somebody able to murdering slightly lady than one which solely seeks to punish him after taking our sister’s life.”


Talking out has offered some catharsis for the sisters after years of struggling to course of their trauma.

“I used to be in hiding for therefore lengthy,” Jess stated. “And it has been extremely therapeutic to come back into this work and share our story and advocate for one thing that issues somewhat than hiding from disgrace of the aftermath of Polly’s kidnapping. For us there’s a full-circle therapeutic popping out. It’s fantastic to be in service.”

In addition they hope individuals assume extra critically in regards to the impression of true crime and media sensationalism: “There may be therapeutic in reclaiming company over our story, as a result of for the longest time it felt prefer it wasn’t ours,” Annie stated.

However as Polly’s identify continues to be invoked, in podcasts, movies or by politicians and advocates, there’s one a part of their story the sisters are protecting to themselves: their reminiscences of Polly. It’s all they’ve left of her.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button