Girl's death spurs call for action

Stricter laws are urged for child sex offenders

December 27, 2009|By Jill Rosen

Not even a full day after police found the body of an 11-year-old girl who they say was kidnapped by a registered sex offender, Maryland activists were pointing to the Salisbury tragedy as evidence of the state's inadequate child protection laws.

Jerry Norton, who heads Citizens for Jessica's Law in Maryland, a group that has fought for years to fortify laws against pedophiles, was angrily calling lawmakers Saturday, underscoring his position.

"My heart goes out to the friends and family of this 11-year-old child," he said. "We need to make it clear to citizens of Maryland that we are not going to let these pedophiles molest our children with just a slap on the wrist. We're tired of these watered-down sentences - they come out and do it again."

On Christmas Day, police found the body of Sarah Haley Foxwell, after a search by some 3,000 of her Wicomico County neighbors and others who gave up their holiday to comb the area's fields and forests.

Police say the girl had been taken from her bedroom Tuesday night by a registered sex offender, Thomas James Leggs Jr., who has been held since Wednesday in the abduction. Leggs briefly dated the girl's aunt, who had custody of her and her two siblings.

Though police have called the crime a murder, they haven't brought any additional charges against Leggs. He is being held without bail at the Wicomico County Detention Center.

On Saturday, officers with the Wicomico sheriff's office, some of whom had not slept for days, continued the investigation, collecting and processing evidence.

"We are following up on any leads that we get," said Sgt. Timothy F. Robinson. "We will continue to work through the weekend, and we'll regroup on Monday."

Meanwhile, the family's pastor was setting up a fund to pay for Sarah's funeral and burial. People interested in donating should send checks to the Farmers Bank of Willards and note the Sarah Haley Foxwell Memorial Fund, said the Rev. William Warren of Allen Memorial Baptist Church.

Funeral arrangements will be made once the body is returned from the coroner.

Warren said the family wanted to thank the community for its outpouring of support. "They're grateful to the police and the law enforcement officers, the people who searched, the people who brought food and everybody who prayed," he said.

The 30-year-old Leggs is listed as a child sex offender in the Maryland Sex Offender Registry because of a third-degree sex offense conviction in 1998.

In Delaware, he is listed as a "high-risk" sex offender in connection with the rape of a minor in 2001.

Norton wondered how a man who raped a minor could be free so soon and associating with children.

"What in the hell is he doing back out on the street, and what is he doing having contact with this child?" he said. "I think the problem is with these guys going through a revolving door."

State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, co-sponsored Maryland's version of Jessica's Law, a bill passed in 2006 that set sentencing guidelines for child sex offenders. It's named for Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped, sexually abused and killed by a previously convicted child sex offender.

At the urging of activists such as Norton, Jacobs and other lawmakers have since tried with no luck to tighten the law to prevent those offenders from getting parole. She thinks Sarah's case would "absolutely" inspire lawmakers to reinforce the law.

"I've already had e-mails from people asking about it," Jacobs said. "It's about how far can we go, and I'm in favor of going as far as we can."

Jacobs also believes the case exposes some weaknesses in how Maryland communicates with other states about child sex offenders. If Leggs was considered "high risk" in Delaware, she thinks he should have been in Maryland, too.

Heading into the 2010 legislative session, Republican Del. Mike Smigiel of Cecil County, who has already pre-filed three bills that would tighten child sex offender laws, said he's been "seething" over the Salisbury case.

He's considering everything from civil incarceration to cracking down on plea bargains to allowing wiretapping of suspected child sex offenders.

"We have very strict laws in Maryland, but I think more has to be done," he said. "These child predators are incorrigible. We have to find ways to deal with this threat to our community."

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