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UnLucky Strike

WHEN MIKE REYNOLDS AND 400 OR SO OF HIS closest friends traveled to Sacramento in April 1993 to show their support for an obscure anti-crime bill called "Three Strikes and You're Out," nobody paid them -- or the bill -- much attention. Who in their right mind, after all, would back a measure to lump shoplifters, drug users and check kiters with rapists, killers and armed robbers, throwing them behind bars for 25 years to life?

"It didn't pass the so-called giggle test," says legislative analyst Jeff Long in Michael J. Moore's film The Legacy: Murder & Media, Politics and Prisons, adding that he didn't even bother calculating the cost of such a law because "this thing was so patently stupid it wasn't going to go anywhere."

Stupid though it may have been, the bill did go somewhere -- and fast. Just 19 months after that warm spring day, the harshest determinate-sentencing mandate in the nation had become law not once, but twice, first at the hands of the Legislature and then by overwhelming voter support for an identical ballot initiative. The remarkable, terrible story of how this came to pass is examined thoroughly by Moore, a Bay Area filmmaker (but not the Michael Moore who made Roger and Me) in The Legacy, which premiered at Sundance and airs onthe PBS series P.O.V. Tuesday night.

Though Moore's anti-three-strikes stance is clear from the film's first frames, where graphs illustrate the skyrocketing prison population over the past two decades in California, he gives equal time to the law's supporters, most notably Reynolds, who began his crusade after his 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, was shot in the head by a purse snatcher and killed. The day after her death, Reynolds, a wedding photographer whose Fresno home is equipped with a bomb shelter, secret passageways and a sub-basement rifle range (telling details that didn't make it into the film), went on the radio with a plea to find his daughter's killer. Within 24 hours, after a standoff with police, the alleged killer -- a convicted felon -- was dead. But Reynolds was not satisfied. He was determined to tackle "the one unindicted perpetrator of my daughter's murder" -- changing the law so that repeat offenders would be locked up for good.

Reynolds faced an uphill battle. After the chilly reception in Sacramento, he launched an initiative drive against seemingly impossible odds: With no financial backing, he had just 150 days to collect more than 400,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. It was here, as Reynolds tells Moore on camera, that "the hand of fate started to play a role."

Enter Marc Klaas, another grieving father, whose 12-year-old daughter Polly's body was found in the early days of Reynolds' signature campaign. A thin man with almond eyes and a careful, almost stiff bearing that suggests a cautious nature, Klaas says on camera, "I was so, so sad." It goes a long way toward explaining what happened next.

After the discovery of Polly's body, the thousands of volunteers who had thrown themselves into searching for her after her abduction from the Petaluma home of a friend were left with nothing but grief and anger. Klaas saw this as a time to mourn. Reynolds saw an opportunity. He approached Klaas, who agreed to support his efforts, setting in motion a three-strikes juggernaut. "Somehow or other," Klaas says, "we were totally thrust into a political arena that we did not necessarily want any part of." But with Klaas' blessing, at the height of his grief, the Polly Klaas search headquarters in Petaluma was transformed into three-strikes central. Hundreds of mourners, many of them still weeping, lined up for blocks to get three-strikes petitions, and by the time the filing deadline rolled around, the campaign had collected more than twice the number of signatures required.

It didn't take long for the candidates in the upcoming election to recognize a prime opportunity. Before the initiative drive was through, Reynolds returned to Sacramento, and legislators fell all over themselves to make nice with him and pass the law. This time, Reynolds gloats on camera, "These suckers saluted." Everyone from gubernatorial candidates -- led, tellingly, by Michael Huffington, who gave the initiative drive $350,000 -- to school-board hopefuls jumped on the three-strikes bandwagon. The Republican Party, the prison guard's union and the NRA were also major backers. Among the most prominent officials who owe their election almost entirely to three strikes is then­Senator Bill Jones, a fellow Fresnoan who sponsored the three-strikes legislation and rode the wave into the Secretary of State's Office.

All the rhetoric of the three-strikes campaign focused on repeat offenders of violent crime, and it seemed that just about everyone in Sacramento was suffering from amnesia about the nonviolent criminals the law also covered. Eventually Marc Klaas realized the scope of the bill and began campaigning against it. But it was too late. Three strikes won in a landslide.

Violent crime has declined in California since three strikes went into effect, the film tells us, but it has dropped as much or more in other parts of the country without such a law. We're reminded that despite the state's abysmal record on education spending, more and more prisons are being built to house more and more people serving trumped up sentences for nonviolent crimes like shoplifting and forgery. And, as feared, the law has affected minority communities disproportionately: African-Americans make up 7 percent of the state population, but 44 percent of third-strike convictions. When Moore completed the film last November, the most recent statistics showed that 20 percent of all California prisoners had had their sentences imposed under that law. By March, that figure had jumped to 28 percent.

THE LEGACY IS AN OFTEN FRUSTRATING FILM. Again and again over the course of an hour, the viewer watches helplessly as high emotion and misinformation lead to terrible lawmaking. Audiences who have seen the film, Moore said in a recent telephone interview, "either feel betrayed, or they feel stupid."

Certainly, giving the power to make law to a man like Reynolds -- a private citizen who seems so intoxicated by the cameras that nothing can stand in his way -- is a bad idea. As portrayed in the film, Reynolds is a consummate media manipulator, counting cameras at news events, always ready with a soundbite. After Klaas came out against three strikes and asked that Polly's name be removed from the campaign, Reynolds refused. Years after the campaign, far from the momentum of the moment and with plenty of time to gain perspective, Reynolds is unmoved. "Polly had no choice of who her dad was," he tells the camera.

The Legacy is an important film, one that anyone who cares about the future of California should see. But there is so much more we need to know: How is the law affecting individual lives? What is the human cost? Moore set out to answer these questions nearly four years ago, delving into the lives of five three-strikes prisoners for a documentary detailing their plight. Then the Legislature passed a law severely restricting media access to prisons, and in the process, Moore says, "slammed the door on the whole project." There is an effort afoot to get the law repealed, and Moore vows that "the minute those doors open, we'll be back in there."

 

The Legacy: Murder & Media, Politics & Prisons airs Tuesday, June 1, on P.O.V. on channel tk at tk time. It will be preceded at tk by a discussion of the three-strikes law on KCET's Life and Times.