A Howard County judge is set to rule Friday whether 38-year-old Karl Marshall Walker Jr. sexually abused an 8-year-old student in the school where he worked by sending her dozens of love letters, a decision that attorneys in the case believe could set a legal precedent for Maryland.
"We're in uncharted legal waters," Howard County State's Attorney Dario Broccolino said as closing arguments ended Wednesday in an Ellicott City courtroom. No one in Maryland has ever been convicted of child sexual abuse without performing some overt physical act, lawyers on both sides said.
If Walker is convicted of sex abuse and attempted sex abuse, Broccolino believes the defense would likely appeal, opening the way for a precedent-setting appeals decision. If he's found not guilty, however, it would affect prosecutions only in Howard County.
Walker never physically abused the third-grade child at Bryant Woods Elementary school in Columbia during the last school year, which is why his defense lawyer, Deputy District Public Defender Louis P. Willemin, argued Wednesday afternoon to Judge Diane Leasure that he should be found innocent. Leasure denied a defense motion for acquittal, and said she'd render a verdict in the nonjury trial Friday morning.
"There's no activities which would make out sexual exploitation," Willemin told the judge. "Letters alone cannot make out sexual exploitation," though Willemin admitted Walker's actions were highly unprofessional and inappropriate.
Walker, an aide for three years, was banned from the school the day the first letter was found March 17, and he no longer works for the county schools. He has consistently and vehemently denied any sexual purpose to his actions. He has admitted being too close to several students — hugging them, holding their hands and giving them candy and money for snacks — but he said he wrote love notes only to one or two children. Another trial involving similar charges and a second student at Bryant Woods is scheduled for October.
But prosecutor Jennifer Ritter read to the judge excerpts from many of the letters and showed enlarged posters of several that included drawings, to make her case that state law is deliberately broad to prohibit exactly the kind of situation at issue in the case — in which a trusted adult takes advantage of a child.
"It's broad enough to cover what is not a sexual offense otherwise, whether physical injuries are sustained or not." She repeated to the judge that Walker had written to the child about his dream of taking her to Las Vegas to see movies and go dancing at a club, and his hope that she might sit on his lap while seeing the movie "Eclipse," and perhaps fall asleep.
"He was setting up a future event. Planting a seed in her head," Ritter argued.
"Be my sweetheart forever. When you hold my hand it makes my day. You are my girl and my love. You have won my heart forever. I have dreams every night of holding you. My heart aches when I'm away from you," he wrote in various notes he folded and gave her as she walked to the school bus at day's end. He also expressed jealousy about her having a crush on a boy in her class.
"I do think about kissing you sometimes but I'd never do it if you didn't want to," he wrote.
"He was completely, totally, passionately and perhaps obsessively in love. These are sexual letters," Ritter argued. Marshall sat calmly in a tan summer suit listening. He is married with two children, according to information presented at trial.
Experts outside the case were divided Wednesday when asked about its implications.
Psychologist Lanz Karfgin of Annapolis, who specializes in child sexual abuse, said, "Absolutely that kind of letters could cause serious psychological harm to a child. That's sexually exploitive," and could affect the child's ability to trust adults — a point Ritter also made.
University of Baltimore law professor Byron Warnken said he had a "gut feeling" that the letters were not criminal under Maryland law. "I don't think that is probably what the legislature is talking about when they use the term 'sexual exploitation.' "
JoAnn Suder, an attorney who has represented child victims of blatant sexual abuse, thought it might be hard to prove legally. "This one's going to be tough," she said.