A 38-year-old Columbia teacher's aide was found guilty Friday of sexually abusing a third-grader by writing her dozens of explicit love letters, setting a new precedent in Maryland for a sex crime conviction without evidence of inappropriate physical contact.
Howard County Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure ruled that Karl Marshall Walker Jr., who worked at Bryant Woods Elementary School for three years, sexually exploited an 8-year-old girl by giving her notes that spoke of his passion for her, his desire to kiss her and his request that she keep their correspondence secret.
"Sexual acts are not only limited to physical acts," Leasure said. "The totality of these letters, the hugging and the hand-holding were exploitative."
Leasure cited notes that read: "When you hug me tight, it's the best part of my day"; "I don't think perverted thoughts about you, I just care about you"; "tear this up after you read it, tear the other notes too"; "I am sad because I really love you and I am not supposed to"; and "I do think about kissing you sometimes."
Leasure noted that the content of the notes, which began in late 2009 and ended when the abuse was discovered in March, became more "passionate" as time progressed. She said that the notes "did border on being obsessive" and that they were "sexual in nature."
The judge's decision is the first in Maryland to convict a predator based on letters. The state's child abuse statute says that someone can be convicted of child abuse if "molestation or exploitation" occurs and "whether physical injuries are sustained or not."
In handing down her decision, Leasure noted that "exploitation itself is not defined in the statute."
Howard County State's Attorney Dario Broccolino said the decision was "right on the money." He said his office received criticism for pursuing the case even though Walker never touched the girl in a sexual way, and some critics called his office "the thought police."
He said the letters were undoubtedly sexual and that the sexual abuse statute "relies on reasonable judges, reasonable prosecutors."
"It wasn't a difficult case; it was just a different case to prove," Broccolino said after the verdict. "It wasn't that complicated of a case in truth; the key ... was the victim keeping the letters."
Walker and his attorney, Lou Willemin, declined to comment. Broccolino said he expects Walker will appeal the decision, but he is confident the outcome will be in the state's favor.
Lisae C. Jordan, general counsel at the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, agreed that Walker was guilty of sexually abusing the student.
"Typically, people who molest children start with a grooming phase where they test whether the child can keep a secret and how the child is going to respond, and then over time, they move closer to the sexual acts that they want to perform on the child," Jordan said. "This is a teacher's aide that seems to be well down that path, [and] I really appreciate that the prosecutor recognized that."
She added: "The interpretation of the statue is a reasonable one. That's what these laws are designed to protect children from — the inappropriate attempts of contact."
But other advocates for victims of abuse worry that the decision could intimidate teachers. Krista McKee, the director of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County, is one such advocate.
"Where are the lines going to be drawn when teachers are trying to communicate? What are the consequences to finding a guilty verdict on something that's written?" McKee wondered. "He was inappropriate, he definitely crossed lines, but I am not quite sure [it was sexual child abuse]."
Broccolino said the decision "is not after" teachers showing reasonable affection to their students.
According to sentencing guidelines, Walker could face up to 14 years in prison. Leasure set a sentencing date in January. Walker has been placed on supervised probation pending his sentencing.
Leasure ordered Walker not to have contact with children younger than 18, though she allowed an exception for his sons, an infant and a 10-year-old.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Walker's fantasies became an 8-year-old girl's reality," Leasure said as she handed down the guilty verdict. "He unjustly and improperly used her for his own benefit."