The indictment this week of Thomas James Leggs Jr. in the murder and sexual assault of 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell comes as the General Assembly is beginning to consider a raft of legislation inspired by the Salisbury girl's abduction and murder just before Christmas Day. Among the more than two dozen bills being proposed are several that would toughen sentencing and supervision guidelines for convicted sex offenders and strengthen the registration requirements for felons who commit crimes against minors. But the laws are only as good as their enforcement, and the state's previous efforts have often fallen short because of a lack of follow-up. Moreover, even the toughest laws are no substitute for parental vigilance.
Prompted by the Foxwell killing, Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed mandatory lifetime supervision of violent and repeat sex offenders, a proposal that has won support among lawmakers but that also raises constitutional issues of due process as well as questions regarding the extent to which judges are allowed discretion in sentencing procedures. In addition, the governor has proposed new legislation to bring Maryland's sex offender laws more into line with stronger federal statutes.
Because many experts believe that some sex offenders are incorrigible and can never be safely released back into their communities, lawmakers have introduced a number of bills aimed at keeping convicted sex offenders behind bars as long as possible. One, introduced by Eastern Shore Republican Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., would prohibit concurrent sentences for defendants convicted on multiple counts in sex offense cases, effectively lengthening the time they would be required to serve. Another measure that has garnered wide support would eliminate good behavior credits and other mitigating factors for incarcerated sex offenders.
Eastern Shore lawmaker Del. Norman H. Conway, a Democrat whose district includes Salisbury, has offered a package of bills in response to the Foxwell killing, including one that would extend the enhanced standard for imposing the death penalty to include scientific evidence other than DNA material. Another would require registered sex offenders accused of any subsequent crime to appear before a judge rather than a district court commissioner to petition for pretrial release. And a third bill would raise the age of the victims for which the strictest penalties may be imposed on violent sex offenders from 13 to 15.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the Foxwell case was that the suspect now in custody was already listed as a registered sex offender in both Maryland and Delaware. But Maryland authorities apparently were unaware that Delaware had designated him a "high-risk" offender likely to commit similar crimes, and considered him "compliant" with the terms of his release because he was keeping authorities here informed of his changes in address. It's possible that had they known Delaware still considered him dangerous, they would have imposed stricter supervision over his movements and affiliations. Lawmakers will be considering a bill to strengthen interstate notification procedures for registered sex offenders who move from one state to another.
But all the supervision and registration in the world won't prevent another tragedy like the Foxwell killing if the adults in vulnerable children's lives aren't doing their jobs responsibly. Mr. Leggs had recently dated Sarah Foxwell's aunt, who was the girl's guardian, and she and her sisters were familiar with the man. The aunt told authorities that she knew Mr. Leggs was a sex offender, and he apparently knew where a spare key to the house was kept. If he ultimately is found to have committed this crime, it should serve as a reminder to parents and guardians everywhere that they cannot be too careful.
Sex offenders are insidious. They deliberately pick vulnerable women to romance in order to get access to their children. As long as there are gullible women in charge of children, predators will not want for victims.
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