Retired prosecutor recalls years-long trial of Polly Klaas’ killer

By Rollie Atkinson, SoCoNews Staff, SoCoNews, October 10, 2021

klaas paper

The front page of the Cloverdale Reveille the week Polly Klaas was found near Cloverdale.

Former Assistant D.A. Greg Jacobs shared his story a final time on the anniversary of Polly Klaas’s kidnapping.

The kidnapping and murder 28 years ago of Petaluma teen-ager Polly Klaas was almost a “9/11 moment.” The tragic incident made international news, led to sweeping changes in the laws of the land and seared moments of “where were you” into almost all Sonoma County residents at the time. The kidnapping took place on Oct. 1, 1993, an otherwise quiet Friday with another grape harvest winding down and a half dozen Friday Night Lights high school football games taking place.

It was a deeper tragedy for Polly’s family and friends, but it also changed and consumed the lives of many others. One of those was Greg Jacobs, the chief prosecutor of Polly’s murderer Richard Allen Davis. The death penalty trial in 1993 consumed three years of Jacobs’ life, who was a county assistant district attorney at the time and drew the ill-starred courtroom assignment from his boss, D.A. Gene Tunney, while Jacobs was trying to make other plans.

Last week, on the anniversary of Polly’s kidnapping, Jacobs shared his story with his fellow Rotarians of the Rotary Club of Sebastopol. He said it would probably be the last time he tells the story that has been the subject of numerous TV docudramas, true crime books and scholarly reconstructions of the tragic night and the murderer’s socio-psychopath diagnosis.

The abduction, the two-month manhunt, the gruesome discovery of the young girl’s body near Cloverdale and the years-long trial that was on the nightly TV news most evenings was “far beyond anything I could have comprehended,” said Jacobs, a Sebastopol native and son of a former town mayor.

Jacobs had previously prosecuted other violent crime cases and the county’s District Attorney’s office had just completed the death penalty trial of Ramon Salcido who killed seven people in 1989. But the Polly Klaas case captured the nation’s attention and Jacobs had to give three daily press conferences during the height of trial that had been moved to San Jose.

Davis was a lifelong criminal and was on parole the night of the kidnapping. It is believed Davis picked Polly’s mother’s house at random where Polly and two friends were having an all-night pajama party. Davis tied all three girls up with torn fabric pieces and abducted Polly.

Alerted by Polly’s mother, the Petaluma police broadcast an “all points bulletin.” But it would be two weeks, and a lucky break, before Davis was finally arrested north of Ukiah where he was staying with relatives.
An FBI forensics team found a palm print left behind by Davis on Polly’s bed. Confronted with that single piece of evidence, Davis confessed to Petaluma police. The next day he led them to Polly’s body he had hurriedly buried in a shallow grave, within eyesight of Highway 101 and just south of Cloverdale.

The two-week manhunt for Polly’s kidnapper was joined by 4,000 people in all. The unsolved case was highlighted on the popular “America’s Most Wanted” TV series and other media outlets. Pieced together later, it turned out that two deputy sheriffs had stopped Davis on the night of the kidnapping near Kenwood on Highway 12. Davis’ car was stuck in a ditch on a side road and the deputies detained Davis for questioning before helping him dislodge his car and letting him go. The Petaluma police bulletin had not been broadcast on a radio channel used by the county sheriff’s office. It is believed that Davis had already killed Klaas by strangulation and hid her body nearby. It is also believed that after driving from the scene with the two deputies that Davis returned later to retrieve the girl’s body so he wouldn’t be linked to the location. It didn’t work.

A few days later a neighbor found torn pieces of fabric and other suspicious items and turned them into the police. The fabric matched samples the FBI had collected from Polly’s bedroom and the manhunt was on its final path.

With the confession in hand, prosecutor Jacobs focused on winning the death penalty. The trial and jury selection was started in Santa Rosa, but it soon became evident that an impartial jury would not be found in the Sonoma County jury pool. Jacobs agreed to the defense lawyers’ request for a change of venue and the trial was moved to Santa Clara County, where Jacobs had to find an apartment where he stayed during the 18 months of trial.

“I think I almost wanted to quit several times,” said Jacobs. “One of my daughters was having troubles at school and there were other pressures, too.” Jacobs said his wife, Kathi, gave him extra strength and told him not to quit.

Davis was found guilty of first-degree murder and four other counts on June 18, 1996. He has been on death row at San Quentin Prison ever since. Numerous appeals and legal filings have all been denied by the courts. Davis is age 67 and thought to be in poor health. He survived an opiate overdose in 2004.

Soon after the Polly Klaas case was finished, her father, Marc, founded the Polly Klaas Foundation that has provided resources and expertise in dozens of missing children cases over the years. Also, as a direct result of the case, California voters passed the Three-Strikes Law aimed to serve repeat violent felons with longer jail sentences. Megan’s Law was passed in 1994 requiring the registration of sex crime offenders and public disclosure of their whereabouts, where the Klaas case was cited in support of its passage.

Polly Klaas was born Jan. 3, 1981. She would be 40 years old today.

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