Mike Reynolds, Champion of California’s Three-Strikes Law, Dies at 79

Mike Reynolds, a California photographer who, after his daughter was murdered in 1992, became a driving force behind stricter sentencing reforms in his state, including its contentious three-strikes law, died on July 9 in Fresno, Calif. He was 79.

The death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his son Michael Reynolds, who said the cause was complications of open-heart surgery.

Mr. Reynolds was best known for developing, and then successfully campaigning for, a proposal to impose a sentence of 25 years to life in prison for anyone convicted of a felony, if that person had two previous convictions for violent or serious felonies.

The so-called three-strikes law passed in 1994, at a time when violent crime was a top concern nationwide. Although rates were beginning to decline, they remained high, and the issue dominated popular culture in the early 1990s, as a theme in movies, on television shows and in the news.

Films like “New Jack City” (1991) and “Unlawful Entry” (1992) sensationalized the inability of law enforcement to stop powerful criminals, an issue brought to life by the high-profile murder of a German tourist, Uwe-Wilhelm Rakebrand, in Florida, and the basketball star Michael Jordan’s father, James, in North Carolina, both in 1993.

At first, the murder of Mr. Reynolds’s daughter, Kimber, seemed like just one more statistic. An 18-year-old college student home in Fresno on summer break, she was attacked one night in June 1992 by two men on motorcycles who tried to grab her purse.

When she resisted, one of the men, Joseph Michael Davis, shot her in the head, in front of dozens of witnesses. She was rushed to a hospital and died 26 hours later.

Sitting beside her bed, Mr. Reynolds vowed to do something.

“It may have sounded like an idle promise at the time, but I promised her that if I could do anything to prevent this from happening to other kids, I would do everything I could,” he told NPR in 2009. “And I’m still trying to keep that promise today.”

His first stop was a local talk-radio station, where he pleaded for help finding his daughter’s killer. Someone called in with a tip that led the police to Mr. Davis, who then died in a shootout when they confronted him.

His accomplice, Douglas Walker, was arrested and reached a plea deal for a nine-year sentence with parole after four and a half, despite having a previous felony conviction. Mr. Reynolds decided that there should be a law to keep people like him locked up.

Voters in Washington State were debating a version of a three-strikes law, and Mr. Reynolds developed his own. Unlike the Washington State proposal, Mr. Reynolds doubled the sentence for criminals convicted of a second violent felony and allowed any felony, even a nonviolent one, to count as the third strike.

Mr. Reynolds had no background in politics or policymaking; he called himself “just a working stiff.” But he threw himself and his family’s life savings into his campaign, meeting with politicians, lawyers and even Gov. Pete Wilson of California, a Republican, to win backing.

His bill faltered in the Legislature after it was introduced in 1993. He tried to get it on the ballot as a voter initiative, but even with a $40,000 donation from the National Rifle Association, he struggled to get the more than 300,000 signatures required.

Then, in October 1993, a 12-year-old girl in Petaluma, Calif., named Polly Klaas was kidnapped, abused and murdered. Her killer, Richard Allen Davis — no relation to Kimber Reynolds’s killer — had a long criminal record.

Almost overnight, public outrage over Polly’s murder turned into support for Mr. Reynolds’s campaign. Calls came in to his Fresno headquarters in such volume that they overloaded the city’s 1-800 system. Within weeks, he had the signatures he needed.

At first Mr. Reynolds struggled to get the 300,000 signatures required to get his proposal on the ballot as a voter initiative. But public outrage over the kidnapping and murder of a 12-year-old girl turned into support for his campaign.Credit…John Storey/Getty Images

The bill also found a new life in the Legislature, as state and national politicians, facing election in the fall of 1994, raced to appear tough on crime. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and her Republican opponent that year, Representative Michael Huffington, both endorsed the bill.

This time it sailed through both chambers of the Legislature, and Governor Wilson signed it into law in March. That fall, the accompanying ballot initiative passed with overwhelming support. In the years that followed, two dozen states, inspired by California, enacted their own three-strikes laws.

The law had, and continues to have, its detractors. Critics claimed it would overcrowd the prisons, drive up the cost of incarceration and clog the courts, as criminals facing life in prison would be less likely to reach a plea agreement.

It was also derided as unfair: Even a felony as minor as stealing a slice of pizza could result in a 25-year sentence, a situation that befell one man, Jerry Dewayne Williams. Though a judge later reduced Mr. Williams’s sentence, critics used his case as an example of the law’s unfairness.

The impact of the law remains unclear. Mr. Reynolds and others claim it led to a drop in violent crime, while opponents say the decline was already happening. And while it led to a short-term stress on the court system, the worst predictions did not come true, as prosecutors and judges came to use it sparingly.

Mr. Reynolds was unbowed, and unfinished: Now a nationally recognized figure in the victims’ rights movement, he led a successful campaign for another law, alternately known as “10-20-life” or “Use a gun and you’re done.” Enacted in 1997, it added 10 years to a sentence if a gun was present in the commission of a crime and 20 years if it was discharged. A life sentence was imposed if the gun’s use resulted in serious injury or death.

Such laws gave California a reputation for having the harshest sentencing laws in the country. But as violent crime rates declined, and as the state turned further to the left, their popularity began to drop.

An initiative to soften the three-strikes law failed in 2004, but a nearly identical initiative in 2012 succeeded. Both proposals mitigated the sentencing rules if the third felony was a nonviolent one. Mr. Reynolds strongly opposed them.

“He wanted to shift the balance of equity from perpetrators to victims,” his son said.

Michael Walter Reynolds was born on Feb. 29, 1944, in Fresno, the son of Robert Reynolds, who worked at National Cash Register, and Eleanor (Altschuler) Reynolds, a nurse.

He attended Fresno City College for two years but left without a degree. Adept with a camera, he developed a career as a wedding photographer, a job he continued to hold even after he became an activist.

Along with his son Michael, he is survived by his wife, Sharon (Fandel) Reynolds; another son, Christopher; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Reynolds continued to work on sentencing reform up until his surgery. And every night, he and his wife slept with Kimber’s teddy bear beside them.

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