Dan Morain

Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Dad behind '3 strikes' fights effort to weaken law

Published: Sunday, Sep. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 2, 2012 - 10:02 am

Mike Reynolds would prefer to spend his retirement puttering around his Fresno home and playing with his grandchildren. But he can't.

On a June evening 20 years ago, a career criminal shot and killed his 18-year-old daughter Kimber and launched him on a crusade to change California's criminal justice system.

Reynolds, 68, once again is summoning the rage that drove him in 1994 to push legislation and an initiative that created California's version of the "three strikes" sentencing law, the toughest in the nation.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would still be doing this," he told me the other day. "I'm getting a little old."

The challenge this time is formidable. Several wealthy individuals are funding Proposition 36, which would soften aspects of the law. Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, a Republican and career prosecutor who narrowly lost his run for attorney general in 2010, backs the measure.

Reynolds' three-strikes law is straightforward. Criminals convicted of two serious or violent felonies, such as rape, murder or armed robbery, face 25 years to life for committing any third felony – no matter how minor.

Proposition 36 would not alter the crimes that constitute strikes. Nor would it weaken the law for rapists, murderers or child molesters. But to receive a 25-years-to-life term, felons would need to commit violent or serious crimes, not something minor like shoplifting.

County prosecutors handle three strikes differently. Some rarely impose it. Others use it regularly. Without one state standard that would be created by Proposition 36, Cooley said, the three-strikes law could face a legal challenge because of disparities among different counties.

Cooley adheres to the policy that Proposition 36 would codify, and it's not as if he is soft on crime. His deputies have sent an average of 334 people to prison for 25 years to life in each of the last three years.

"Some of those people who are the biggest defenders of three strikes are, unwittingly, its biggest enemies," Cooley said.

Reynolds never asked for what he got. He worked as a wedding photographer and collected stuff. When I visited him at his home in 1994, his living-room furniture consisted of antique barber chairs. In the backyard, he had a refurbished restaurant stove, a motel ice machine and a homemade picnic table, ideal for hot San Joaquin Valley nights.

He and his wife, Sharon, got married on Valentine's Day 1969 and had three kids, the youngest of whom was Kimber. A student at the Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing in Los Angeles, she had come home for a wedding. On the night before she was to head back to school, she went to the Tower District, the center of Fresno's night life.

Two parolees tried to grab her purse. When she resisted, one shot her in the head. He died in a police shootout, his accomplice was sentenced to nine years, and Reynolds focused on figuring out how to keep career criminals in prison.

"My daughter had the guts to stand up to those two jerks," he told me then. "The least I can do is do everything I can to try to prevent this from happening to some other kid."

To draft the law, Reynolds got advice from various individuals, including an appellate court justice.

Lawmakers were sympathetic, but weren't about to change the law – until Richard Allen Davis broke into a Petaluma home, kidnapped 12-year-old Polly Klaas, and murdered her. Suddenly, the cause took off. Legislators approve three strikes without amendment. To lock the law into the penal code, he pursued the initiative, which won in a landslide.

The Legislative Analyst's Office calculated that by the time the full impact took hold, California would have 270,000 more inmates. Obviously, the explosion didn't happen, in part because the California Supreme Court granted judges the authority to modify three-strikes charges. About 8,900 felons currently are serving sentences of 25 years to life.

Reynolds attributes California's drop in crime to three strikes and its ability to incapacitate career criminals, although experts cite other causes including tougher gun laws and demographic shifts.

Reynolds donates his time and voice to the No-on-36 effort. Whether he can mount a campaign remains to be seen. He has received only one donation, $100,000, from one police group. He planned to ask the California Correctional Peace Officers Association for money. But while the union donated to Reynolds' cause in the past, it has other priorities, new leadership and less money than it once did.

These days, Reynolds walks with a limp and is a little bit stooped. He thinks about Kimber all the time, even as he dotes on his four grandchildren. One bears a striking resemblance to Kimber.

"I hug her and hear this tiny little voice that says, 'Yep, I'm in here,' " he said.

No matter how Californians vote on Proposition 36 – I'm undecided – Reynolds will fight to keep career criminals behind bars, so long as he can draw a breath. The hole in his heart allows him no choice.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Dan Morain, Senior editor

Dan Morain, editorial page editor

Dan Morain

Dan Morain, editorial page editor, has been a columnist at The Sacramento Bee since 2010. As a news reporter, he covered the California Supreme Court when Rose Bird was chief justice, the Legislature when Willie Brown was speaker and the Governor's Office during Gray Davis' tenure. He spent 27 years at the Los Angeles Times, where his final assignment was to be part of the team that covered the 2008 presidential campaign. He and his wife, Claudia Morain, have three children, each of whom attended public schools and California's public universities.

Email: dmorain@sacbee.com
Phone: 916-321-1907
Twitter: @DanielMorain

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