Death On The Shore

Our View: The Kidnapping And Murder Of An 11-year-old Salisbury Girl Raises Questions About How Best To Prevent Such Horrific Crimes From Happening

December 30, 2009

What happened to Sarah Haley Foxwell, the 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl kidnapped from her home and found dead on Christmas Day, is every parent's worst nightmare. In custody in Wicomico County on charges stemming from the case is Thomas James Leggs Jr., a 30-year-old convicted sex offender.

An innocent young girl and a man with a history of sex offenses in two states. That's about as heinous as it gets, and it's no surprise that many on the Shore - and perhaps elsewhere in Maryland - are not only saddened but outraged at this terrible crime.

But whether this particular horror should give rise to any significant changes in Maryland sex offender laws is, at best, unclear. At the moment, focus needs to be placed on fully investigating the crime and prosecuting the guilty party. It should be noted that although he is in custody for her kidnapping, Mr. Leggs has not been charged with Sarah's murder - at least not as of our deadline for publication.

One thing that the youngster's death has proven, however, is the goodness of so many of the victim's neighbors. An estimated 3,000 people from this rural area volunteered to search for the Wicomico Middle School sixth-grader on Christmas morning.

That's more than 3 percent of the county's population. The equivalent act in Baltimore County would require 25,000 people to assemble on this sacred Christian holiday and instead of opening gifts or listening to church hymns, spend it out in the cold, trudging through snow-covered fields. In addition, anonymous Eastern Shore donors have already offered to pay for the girl's funeral.

The recent pronouncement by Wicomico County's sheriff and state's attorney that the incident "screams for the death penalty" is unfortunate, however, particularly given that it appears the evidence to support such a verdict has not yet been collected.

The pronouncement may also suggest a troubling desire for revenge is in the air. While understandable under the circumstances, that could prove unhelpful to both the furtherance of justice and to any potential reforms of child abuse laws that might actually be justified.

Clearly, some update of Maryland law pertaining to child abuse cases in necessary. To comply with the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, the state will need to change its sex offender registry between now and July in a manner that better assesses the seriousness of their crimes and potentially tracks them longer.

But on a more basic level, lawmakers need to investigate what actions might be taken to reduce the number of sex offenses that take place in this state. Mandatory minimum sentences, restrictions on plea bargaining and suspending good time credits for convicted pedophiles may sound good but, in reality, can be counterproductive.

Instead, policymakers need to think creatively about how best to prevent such violent acts from taking place at all. Requiring those convicted of sex crimes to wear GPS monitoring equipment upon their release from prison might prove more helpful.

Another option: hiring more social workers to intervene in cases of potential child sexual abuse or investing more taxpayer dollars in mental health services for victims to help prevent another generation of abused kids growing up to become abusers.

That's not to suggest that lawmakers should not consider whether sentencing guidelines are adequate or even whether this is the one exceptional crime for which mandatory minimum sentences are justified. Perhaps it is. But this is a complex matter that needs to be examined in a careful, thoughtful way, and not hampered by the distracting din of hang-'em-high posturing by the usual back-benchers.

Let Sarah Haley Foxwell be remembered not as a cry for vengeance but as the precious gift that she was, for the love her family, friends and neighbors have shown her in life and in death, and perhaps for motivating reforms that might genuinely prevent harm to others.

Readers respond

There truly is nothing more horrific than a crime against a child. My instincts say to put Thomas Leggs in the local prison in Snow Hill and let him fend for himself. Where is the aunt's accountability? I can't imagine the grief she is experiencing right now, but as the child's legal guardian she had a responsibility to protect that little girl and she failed miserably. There is no quick fix, I've been a long outspoken liberal all of my adult life, but crimes like this reach deep into my primal senses and make me question the very core of my belief system. Sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated. They just can't.

Lynn Canade

Execution is the proper course for this individual if found guilty in a court of law. The rights of our children need to be placed first, before the rights of sex offenders. No early parole for sex offenders would be a good start.


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