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Marc Klaas leads charge against Death Row inmates' online posts

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It used to be that a Death Row sentence meant being cut off from the outside world, preventing all but those receiving the occasional call or letter from ever hearing from prisoners.

But the Internet has changed all that, ushering in what one expert calls a "democratization" of communication.

Aided by groups opposed to the death penalty, such inmates as Richard Allen Davis, the killer of Polly Klaas, and Scott Peterson, convicted of killing his wife and unborn baby, have been sharing thoughts, interests, even art with the outside world on public Web pages.

It's legal, and controversial.

"Greetings with a smile," writes Davis in an ad for pen pals on one Web site. "I was just wondering could there be someone out in the world who would be with an open mind."

He continued: "Could there be anyone who could take the time to see for themselves, just who I really am."

Marc Klaas, father of the 12-year-old Petaluma girl Davis murdered, said he knows full well who Davis is.

He's angered by blog-style prisoner sites devoted to spreading the words of inmates.

"It's a travesty. It's an embarrassment. It's outrageous," Klaas said. "Every victim family that says it opens up old wounds is absolutely correct."

Beyond bars

Klaas wants to restrict the ability of prisoners to communicate through the Web. But it's an unlikely result, considering Death Row inmates are already denied computer access and the postings are made indirectly by "flying a kite," as many prisoners refer to mailing a letter.

The basic policy within the California Department of Corrections is that "as long as they're not 'revictimizing' society, we don't have the right to interfere with their freedom to communicate," said Lt. Sam Robinson, a spokesman for San Quentin Prison, where Davis and Peterson are on Death Row.

The law does not extend to the emotional harm Klaas said he experiences when he sees writing and photos of the shirtless and tattooed Davis posted by supporters on Davis' Web page.

"At some point, you just gotta stop giving these guys access, rights and ability to influence society," Klaas said. "Society has to extend their punishment to taking away that ability."

The abduction and murder of Polly Klaas triggered nationwide changes, including helping to bring to California the Amber Alert system and lengthier prison sentences for repeat offenders -- the "three-strikes" law. Similar laws were enacted in at least 25 states.

But behind bars, free speech cannot be curtailed.

It's a First Amendment issue, Robinson said. While the movements of Death Row inmates are more restricted than other prisoners, they have the same legal right to communicate, he said.

Their letters and phone calls are monitored by prison officials, who look for communication that would be "a direct threat to society as a whole," Robinson said.

Officials look for criminal activity such as threatening witnesses, or orchestrating crimes such as putting out a hit on someone through coded messages.

Since his daughter's death, Klaas has led efforts to find missing children, formed the Klaas Kids foundation and pushed for legislation restricting inmates' ability to operate businesses from behind bars.

This week, he's fielded calls because of news reports sparked by an article in the Los Angeles Times' technology section on Death Row "bloggers."

Most reports have focused on Peterson's page, which features photos of him with his late wife, Laci, whom he was found guilty of killing and dumping into San Francisco Bay while she was pregnant.

His page was created for free by the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty, a Toronto-based nonprofit that publishes pages and pen-pal ads for more than 100 California Death Row inmates.

Repeated efforts to contact the group were unsuccessful.

Prisoners' blogs

On its Web site, the group's organizers said many of the prisoners for whom they have set up pages were "wrongly convicted, have issues in their cases, were juveniles at the time of the offense, are victims of endemic racism and or corruption in the judicial system."

Peterson's page links viewers to his family's support site, where he has a June 6 blog posting explaining why they wanted to have "better communication" with his supporters.

"It has been suggested that we do a blog," Peterson wrote, referring later in his entry to his "wrongful conviction."

Such an ability is unprecedented and speaks to the "entire democratization of media," said Jesse Drew, director of Technocultural Studies at UC Davis. "It's allowing pretty much anybody to communicate to a mass audience."

Gallery shows featuring art by prisoners and books with their writings have been used to reach a wider audience. But never "to the extent where you have a Listserv of a million people. That changes the scale of things dramatically," he said.

Social creatures

It's an inmate's right to reach out, and it's encouraged by the Corrections Department, said spokeswoman Terry Thornton.

"There's nothing inherently wrong with that. People are human and we are social creatures and there is this need to connect with other human beings," Thornton said, "and if an inmate is busy writing to someone, that's time not spent making a shank."

But Thornton warned that those who assist prisoners also must understand who they may be dealing with.

Last year, Missouri adopted a rule similar to one in Florida that prohibits inmates from soliciting pen pals on the Internet because several were scamming them. Similar cases have been reported to prisons in California, Thornton said.

At San Quentin, officials have received calls about identity theft and manipulation of people's sympathies to gain funds running in the hundreds of thousands, Robinson said.

"These are convicted felons," he said. "Just because they're behind our walls doesn't mean they don't have the ability to continue committing crime."

For Klaas, the issue will remain personal.

He said seeing images of Davis' page this week "really, truly turns my stomach."

"I lose sleep over it, it drives me to drink. I saw a picture of the guy's naked torso, the same thing probably that my daughter saw before he choked the life out of her," he said.

"It's just absolutely unbelievable."

You can reach Staff Writer Shadi Rahimi at 521-5280

or shadi.rahimi@

pressdemocrat.com.

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