A former Columbia teacher's aide who wrote dozens of love letters to an 8-year-old third-grader at his school but never had any physical sexual contact with her was sentenced to seven years in state prison Friday in a precedent-setting sexual abuse case.
Over prosecutor Mary Murphy's objections, Howard County Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure allowed Karl Marshall Walker Jr., 39, to remain free on bail pending an appeal to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
Louis P. Willemin, the deputy district public defender who represented Walker, said his client is the first person in the state to be convicted of sexual abuse without physical sexual contact.
"He manipulated and cultivated this child's feelings to make himself feel good," Murphy told Leasure, reading excerpts from letters in which Walker said he had thoughts of kissing her, expressed "extreme jealousy" of the girl's other friends and said he'd fantasized about taking the Bryant Woods Elementary pupil to Las Vegas.
Murphy said Walker was "grooming" the child for abuse, though Walker has denied any sexual intentions. The prosecutor asked for a sentence of seven to 13 years under state sentencing guidelines. The Baltimore Sun does not name the victims of sexual abuse.
Willemin said Walker had fallen into a depression over money problems in September 2009, when the love letters began, and used his contacts with children at school to boost his ego. He, his wife and their two children were evicted from their apartment in August, and his wife, a lawyer, separated from him, though she wrote a letter on his behalf that was read in court describing his work with their autistic 11-year-old son.
"There was no suggestion in all of these [pre-sentencing] evaluations that he intended to go any further," Willemin argued, suggesting there is little chance Walker would ever do anything like this again.
Sniffling as he spoke, Walker apologized profusely.
"What I did was incredibly stupid, and I'm sorry," he said of the harm he had caused to the child, her family, the school and his family. "Right now, she sees me as a danger. Right now, she sees every adult as a danger," he said of the victim.
He vowed to pursue mental health treatment and "get my mind right."
While the defense requested that Walker be sentenced to less than 18 months in the Howard County Detention Center, Leasure said, "It is my view that this is not a case where a sentence below the guidelines is appropriate."
She sentenced him to 13 years in prison, with all but seven years suspended, followed by five years of supervised probation.
"I thought it was an appropriate sentence," Howard County State's Attorney Dario Broccolino said, expressing confidence that the conviction would stand on appeal.
Leasure found Walker guilty in September. According to evidence presented at his trial, the former aide at Bryant Woods Elementary School wrote numerous love letters to the child, but Murphy did not offer any evidence of physical abuse.
"I can't live without your love. My heart beats 1,000 times a minute. … You are my girl," Walker wrote, according to excerpts from the letters Murphy read aloud in court during the trial.
Walker worked at Bryant Woods for three years. He was banned from the school last March after one of the letters was found by a student teacher as furniture was being moved.
While Walker was overly friendly to several students, and while his notes and letters to the girl revealed a "strange and inappropriate emotional attachment," they were not illegal, Willemin contended during the trial. "There is no evidence of sexual contact," he told the judge.
Walker consistently denied any sexual intent during interviews with county police detectives, according to evidence presented at the trial. He told detectives that he gave children candy and then began giving them money after being told that giving them candy was inappropriate.