Mike Reynolds, force behind California’s three-strikes law, dies at 79

After his 18-year-old daughter was murdered in 1992, shot at point-blank range outside a busy restaurant in Fresno, Calif., Mike Reynolds channeled his grief into activism, embarking on a personal crusade to lock up repeat offenders like the one who took his daughter’s life.

Two years later, amid a surge of concern over violent crime and high-profile killings, he helped secure the passage of California’s three-strikes law, one of the nation’s toughest sentencing measures. The 1994 law meant that people with a serious or violent felony conviction would serve twice the usual sentence for their second felony conviction, and then sentences of 25 years to life for their third.

Developed by Mr. Reynolds, who said he drafted the measure with help from lawyers, prosecutors and judges, the law inspired similar measures in more than two dozen states across the country. It also sparked a contentious debate over the effectiveness of measures that critics called draconian, with lengthy sentences imposed even when the third felony is relatively minor, like shoplifting, possessing marijuana or placing a bet in an office pool.

Mr. Reynolds, who continued to advocate for strict sentencing rules even as voters elected to reverse the tough-on-crime measures he championed, died July 9 at a hospital in Fresno. His death at 79, from complications following open-heart surgery, was confirmed by his wife, Sharon Reynolds.

“I wish somebody else would have done this and I would have a daughter,” Mr. Reynolds told the Los Angeles Times in 1994, after his advocacy efforts brought him national media attention and an invitation to the White House. “If I could, even knowing that this law would save a lot of lives, if I could go back and have my daughter and not have this bill and not have this notoriety and just go back to life the way it was, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But that is not real. What we have to do is go on with the cards that have been dealt.”

As Mr. Reynolds told it, he was just an “average Joe,” with little interest in politics or policymaking before his daughter’s murder. He was a professional photographer — he took pictures at more than 4,000 weddings, according to his family — and spent his free time cooking and working on engineering and salvage projects, which included restoring vintage cash registers and barber chairs. In front of his house in Fresno was a subterranean photography studio he built under the lawn; out back was an outdoor kitchen of his own design, complete with a cast-iron bathtub that he converted into a gas grill.

“He was constantly tinkering and innovating,” his son Michael said in a phone interview. “It didn’t matter whether it was the criminal justice system or his tempura batter or spaghetti sauce.”

The three-strikes law emerged out of a deathbed promise that Mr. Reynolds said he made to his 18-year-old daughter, Kimber. She was home from college for a friend’s wedding, and had just walked out of Fresno’s Daily Planet restaurant one night in June 1992 when she was approached by two men on motorbike who tried to grab her purse. When she resisted, one of the men put a .357 Magnum to her head and pulled the trigger. She died 26 hours later.

“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,” Mr. Reynolds told NPR.

The gunman, Joseph Michael Davis, had a lengthy criminal history and was killed in a shootout with police. His accomplice, Douglas Walker, was also a repeat offender. He pleaded guilty to robbery and accessory to murder, receiving a nine-year sentence and the chance to go free on good behavior after half that time.

Convinced that the best way to protect future victims was to take recidivists off the street, Mr. Reynolds began crafting a set of strict sentencing standards, inspired in part by a three-strike proposal that was being debated in Washington state at the time. He invited lawyers, judges and state lawmakers to discuss criminal justice issues in his backyard; met with politicians including Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican; and poured his savings into the initiative, which also received financial support from the National Rifle Association.

His proposal gained little traction when it was introduced in the state legislature in 1993. But it gained renewed attention later that year after Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old girl from Petaluma, was kidnapped from a slumber party and murdered by a repeat offender, Richard Allen Davis — unrelated to Kimber’s killer — who was sentenced to death and remains on death row.

While Mr. Reynolds had previously struggled to collect the 385,000 signatures needed to get his proposal on the ballot as a voter initiative, he now received overwhelming support. The initiative was passed on a ballot measure and signed into law as a bill, with bipartisan backing.

Mr. Reynolds “was the driving force” behind the three-strikes law, said Joe Domanick, an investigative journalist who wrote about the legislation in his 2004 book “Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America’s Golden State.” “But without Polly Klaas, it wouldn’t have been enough.”

In a phone interview, Domanick added that Mr. Reynolds “was a shrewd, tenacious guy” who was especially skilled at garnering support for his cause through appearances on talk-radio shows. “He knew how to tell a story, and he understood how to make an emotional impact.”

Mr. Reynolds went on to advocate for the passage of another law, known as “10-20-life” or “use a gun and you’re done,” which was enacted in 1997 and added additional years to a person’s sentence if they committed a felony while carrying or using a firearm.

By then, the three-strikes law had grown increasingly contentious. Critics said that life sentences were disproportionately given to Black defendants, and the law meant that a repeat offender could be given a 25-year prison sentence even if their third felony was for stealing a slice of pepperoni pizza, as happened to 27-year-old Jerry Dewayne Williams in 1995. (His sentence was later reduced.) The legislation also placed a heavy burden on California’s prison system: In 2009, the state auditor estimated that the additional prison time imposed under the law would cost the state an additional $19.2 billion.

As researchers continued to debate the law’s effectiveness at lowering crime rates, voters soured on the legislation, electing in 2012 to amend sentencing rules so that the third strike was restricted to felonies that were categorized as violent or serious. Two years later, a referendum was passed to reduce many nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.

The changes disappointed Mr. Reynolds, who attributed rising crime rates to weakened sentencing laws, and who argued that repeat offenders only had themselves to blame when they found themselves sentenced to decades in prison.

“All they have to do is stop doing crime,” he told NPR in 2009. “That’s all we ask. And they’ll never be charged under three strikes. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

The younger of two sons, Michael Walker Reynolds was born in Fresno on Feb. 29, 1944. His mother was a nurse, and his father worked at National Cash Register.

Mr. Reynolds started his own business at 18, according to his wife, and studied at Fresno City College for two years before dropping out to focus on his photography career. In addition to his son Michael and his wife of 54 years, the former Sharon Fandel, survivors include another son, Christopher, and four grandchildren.

For more than three decades after their daughter’s murder, Mr. Reynolds and his wife sought to remain close to Kimber’s memory, visiting her gravesite each week and sleeping each night with her teddy bear in their bed.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my daughter,” Mr. Reynolds told the Guardian in 2014. “I have two sons and four grandchildren. When I hug them, I feel I can hear Kimber’s voice in there.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post