O'Malley moved by girl's killing

Gov. Martin O'Malley has said a legislative response to Sarah Foxwell's killing would be a major focus of his administration.
Gov. Martin O'Malley has said a legislative response to Sarah Foxwell's killing would be a major focus of his administration. (2008 Photo By Jamie C. Horton/associated Press)
By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

Gov. Martin O'Malley took the dais in a crowded Eastern Shore ballroom last week with a polished, five-page speech touting Maryland's lowest murder rate in nearly 25 years. It was a honed, early election-year message poised to rekindle his image as the crime-fighting former mayor of Baltimore.

In rare, unscripted minutes that followed, however, the Democratic governor never uttered a sentence from his prepared remarks.

Instead, he wandered, searching for the right words. The accomplishment, he told the assembled county leaders, could seem to matter less when an 11-year-old such as Sarah Foxwell is found slain on Christmas. It's the type of case -- possibly mishandled by the justice system -- that stumps an executive like O'Malley for whom crime is his signature initiative.

"She was brutally, callously, monstrously murdered, tortured and killed here on the Eastern Shore, this beautiful place, blessed by God with beauty and kindness," he said. "All of us, when this happens, we ask ourselves, what could we have done differently?"

O'Malley later told reporters that a legislative response to Sarah's killing would be a major focus of his administration when the General Assembly reconvenes Wednesday, although he has yet to map out a specific proposal. Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty in the case. But Maryland has had a de facto moratorium on executions after three years of attempts backed by O'Malley to repeal the death penalty and amid questions raised by Democratic lawmakers who control a state review panel.

O'Malley's remarks Thursday night offered a glimpse into how personally he takes the issue of reducing crime. He said the first number he looks at in the morning is the state's overnight homicide total, and aides haul around a ubiquitous three-ring binder filled with crime rates and other up-to-the-minute statistics. But some crimes, he said, don't fit neatly into his performance-based governing style. "The murders of children really, I mean, very rightly capture everybody's attention. We all see our own child in the murder of a child . . . but how do you stop something like that? How do you know when somebody is going to break like that and do something you could never, ever imagine?"

According to lawmakers, almost every major option available for further constraining sex offenders would raise civil rights issues and vastly increase state costs as Maryland grapples with a near $2 billion budget gap. Depending on how far the state's Democratic-controlled legislature is willing to go in an election year and whether O'Malley latches on to a particular proposal, efforts to tighten restrictions could add a layer of complexity this year in Annapolis.

With or without new legislation, hearings on Maryland's sex offender rules appear likely to raise questions about the tenacity of prosecutions and coordination of law enforcement efforts surrounding at least one of the state's registered sex offenders.

A Washington Post review of court records and interviews with law enforcement sources reveal a more disturbing picture than detailed previously about Thomas Leggs Jr., 30, the man charged with kidnapping in the Foxwell case.

Leggs, through his attorney, has denied any involvement in the crime. He has not been charged with homicide or a sex-related offense in the case. Police say he was a former boyfriend of Sarah's aunt, knew where the family hid a house key and was described in detail by Sarah's sister, who awoke to see a man leaving with Sarah on the night of Dec. 22. Sarah's body was found on Christmas in a rural area northeast of Salisbury.

Even before Leggs's arrest, law enforcement officials say his record had raised questions about Maryland's handling of registered sex offenders.

In the 11 years that Leggs has been listed on the state's sex offender registry, he has been arrested five times in sex-related crimes. His arrest in Sarah's case was at least his seventh overall since 1998, according to documents and law enforcement sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail charges that were later dropped and not fully explained in court records.

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