Md. girl's death sharpens criticism of sex offender laws

By Jill Rosen
Baltimore Sun
Sunday, December 27, 2009; C01

Not even a full day after police found the body of an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped, authorities say, by a registered sex offender, the Salisbury tragedy was spotlighted by Maryland activists who consider the state's child protection laws inadequate.

Jerry Norton, who heads Citizens for Jessica's Law in Maryland, a group that for years has fought to fortify laws against pedophiles, was calling lawmakers Saturday, underscoring his position.

"My heart goes out to the friends and family of this 11-year-old child," he said. "We need to make it clear to citizens of Maryland that we are not going to let these pedophiles molest our children with just a slap on wrist. We're tired of these watered-down sentences -- they come out and do it again."

On Christmas, police found the body of Sarah Haley Foxwell after a search that brought 3,000 of her Wicomico County neighbors together to comb fields and forests.

Police said the girl had been taken from her bedroom Tuesday night by a registered sex offender, Thomas James Leggs Jr., who has been held since Wednesday in the abduction. Leggs briefly dated the girl's aunt, who had custody of her and her two siblings.

Although police call the girl's death murder, they haven't brought additional charges against Leggs. He is being held without bail at the Wicomico County Detention Center.

Rather, on Saturday, officers with the Wicomico sheriff's office, some of whom have not slept for days, continued the investigation, collecting and processing evidence.

"We are following up on any leads that we get," said Sgt. Timothy F. Robinson. "We will continue to work though the weekend, and we'll regroup on Monday."

Meanwhile, the family's pastor was setting up a fund to pay for Sarah's funeral and burial. Funeral arrangements will be made once the body is returned.

The Rev. William Warren of Allen Memorial Baptist Church said the family wanted to thank the community for its outpouring of support. "They're grateful to the police and the law enforcement officers, the people who searched, the people who brought food and everybody who prayed," he said.

The suspect

Leggs, 30, is listed in the Maryland registry because of a third-degree sex offense conviction in 1998.

In Delaware, he is listed as a "high-risk" sex offender in connection with the rape of a minor in 2001.

Norton is flabbergasted that a man who raped a minor could be free so soon and associating with children.

"What . . . is he doing back out on the street, and what is he doing having contact with this child?" he said. "I think the problem is with these guys going through a revolving door."


State Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford) co-sponsored Maryland's version of Jessica's Law, a bill passed in 2006 that set sentencing guidelines for child sex offenders. It's named for Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped, sexually abused and killed by a convicted child sex offender.

At the urging of activists such as Norton, Jacobs and other legislators have tried unsuccessfully to tighten the law to prevent offenders from getting parole. She thought Sarah's case would "absolutely" inspire legislators to reinforce the law.

"I've already had e-mails from people asking about it," Jacobs said. "It's about how far can we go, and I'm in favor as going as far as we can."

Jacobs also said the case exposes weaknesses in how Maryland communicates with other states about child sex offenders. If Leggs was considered "high risk" in Delaware, she thinks he should have been in Maryland, too.

Bills filed

Del. Mike D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil), who, heading into the 2010 legislative session, has pre-filed three bills that would tighten child sex offender laws, said he has been "seething" over the Salisbury case.

He's considering such options as civil incarceration, cracking down on plea bargains and allowing wiretapping of suspected child sex offenders.

"We have very strict laws in Maryland, but I think more has to be done," he said. "These child predators are incorrigible. We have to find ways to deal with this threat to our community."

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