On April 4, 2000, Joe Klaas testified at a legislative hearing in Sacramento in favor of applying Three Strikes only to violent crimes. He arrived with members of Families Against California’s Three Strikes Law, including Sue Reams, whose son, Shane, had been dealt a sentence of 25-years-to-life for being the alleged lookout on the sale of a $20 rock of cocaine to an undercover cop. This account is excerpted from Joe Domanick’s Cruel Justice, published by the University of California Press.
“I want to state up-front,” says Joe Klaas, a man born to the mike and the dramatic gesture, “that the murder, rape and kidnapping of my granddaughter, Polly Klaas, was exploited by this three-strikes bill — a bill which didn’t stand a chance in hell of passing, before Polly’s killing.”
As he lays out his bitter message to the members of the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, which is considering the amendments Sue Reams will lobby for, Joe Klaas’ outrage seems to gush up from deep within his 80-year-old bones. The insanity, the injustice of this “Taliban-type” law was an affront not only to 12-year-old Polly’s memory, but to the entire Klaas family. Polly had been used, they’d all been used, to get this “God-awful, unjust bill” passed. “Unjust, God-awful,” that’s exactly what he felt, and why he’d climbed into his silver ’85 Buick Regal that morning and driven the 200 miles from Carmel to speak at this hearing and to try and have the law changed.
But Klaas is not addressing the world as he was back in the front-page days of ’94, when he had accused supporters of Three Strikes of “dancing a jig on Polly’s grave.” Precious few reporters had taken the time to attend today’s hearing. Why bother? The chance of anything of lasting significance emerging out of this or any other legislative hearing that dares consider modifying the state’s three-strikes law is next to zero. In the wider scheme of things, this hearing was little more than a bone tossed afar to a pleading dog.
Nevertheless, members of the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee are mesmerized as they watch Joe Klaas from behind their dais. And so are Sue Reams and the other 100 or so spectators seated in the stark hearing room beneath the splendid cupola of the neoclassical state Capitol building. So tightly packed is the small room that people are standing at its edges and overflowing into the hallway outside.
Klaas continues to rivet his audience with the verbal agility of the talk-show host he once was. “I belong to ‘Citizens Against Crime,’” he tells the committee. “There is no member of my family who’s not opposed to violent crime, any kind of crime . . . We think people who commit nonviolent crimes should get appropriate sentences. But we don’t think that violence [in turn] should be perpetrated upon them.”
Upon them. That was typical Joe Klaas. For despite the unspeakable that had been done to his granddaughter, Joe Klaas doesn’t just believe in the myth of World War II America, he is that America. The America that saved the world from the Nazis and Japanese warlords in order to ensure that his country remained the land of the free and home of the brave, with liberty and justice for all.
What Joe Klaas did not believe in, however, he spells out to the committee as he continues. “As a former prisoner . . . of the Nazis . . . I can say that taking 25 years of somebody’s life for committing a nonviolent crime is violence almost on the level with murder.”
So blunt, so to the point, so unexpected is the line, that Reams and her fellow FACTS members spring to their feet and give Joe Klaas a “Standing O.”
Applause and other such displays of emotion during hearings are a serious breach of Assembly etiquette, however, and this one brings a quick, stern admonition from the committee chair.
“I’m sorry,” Klaas snaps back, “but it is violence. [Sentencing someone] to 25-to-life because he made a false application for a real estate loan, [or giving someone] 25-years-to-life for taking aspirin out of a bottle and putting the bottle back on the shelf in a drugstore — now that is violence.”