COURSEY: Three strikes, the death penalty and Richard Allen Davis

In a debate Sunday night in Santa Rosa, Marc Klaas invoked the specter of the man who killed his daughter to argue against propositions on the November ballot that would change California's three-strikes sentencing law and abolish the state's death penalty.

It was a good strategy. Richard Allen Davis is the perfect example of why three strikes and the death penalty were created in the first place. Davis, who kidnapped and murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas in 1993, would have been inside a prison cell instead of out on parole had three strikes been in place at the time. And if ever there was a person deserving to be put to death for the callousness and depravity of his crime, Davis fits the bill to a T.

But, while Marc Klaas makes a good and emotionally wrenching debater, the discussion about Propositions 34 and 36 isn't about him or his daughter or the man who killed her.

It's about us, and how we function as a society.

As much as we might like to think otherwise, our criminal justice system is a mirror of our values. And right now that mirror reflects a system that at times is wildly out of balance, at times is flat-out wrong, at times is at odds with the values we hold dear. It is in need of small fixes and large changes.

Proposition 34, which would abolish the death penalty in California, represents the latter. Proposition 36, which would make a small but significant change to the three strikes law, provides the former.

Let's start with the death penalty, to which Davis was sentenced in 1996 after being convicted of the murder of Polly Klaas. Sixteen years later, he still lives on Death Row at San Quentin with 725 other condemned criminals.

I've explained my personal opposition to the death penalty many times in columns over the years. I don't believe that the legal killing of a person should be society's response to the illegal killing of another person. The ritual and spectacle of a Death Row execution elevates the criminal to celebrity status, reduces us to the killer's level and diminishes us as a society.

But there are a lot of other reasons to oppose the death penalty. It is not pursued fairly and evenly – a poor, non-white defendant is more likely to be subjected to the death penalty than a rich, white defendant. It does not deter crime – murders are usually committed in the heat of the moment or by sociopaths, not by people who are worried about consequences. It is expensive – California could save more than $100 million a year on trials, appeals and special housing for Death Row inmates if Proposition 34 passes, according to the state's Legislative Analyst.

And, to bring the argument back to Davis, the death penalty isn't even used in California – despite all of its costs. Davis and other condemned criminals are much more likely to die of natural causes on Death Row than to be put to death by the state (Davis survived a self-administered drug overdose in his cell in 2006). Of about 900 inmates sentenced to death in California since 1978, only 14 have been executed – none since 2006.

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