The calls have been coming in to the Anne Arundel County state's attorney from all over the state from residents disturbed by a little girl's still-unexplained death and by one troubling question:
Didn't Richard Lee Marshall do something illegal?
Marshall, 25, of Severn, has told police that after his daughter Z'aira Tri'ann Marshall, 3, died suddenly in his home last December, he put her body in a garbage bag and left it in woods near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, officials said.
He never called police or rescue workers, never called the girl's mother. He never, so far as police know, reported the death to anyone.
Yet apparently, this secret, makeshift funeral was perfectly legal in Maryland--a surprising holdover from a rural era when deaths were mostly a family matter, with burials conducted behind the barn. As it stands, some say, Maryland code offers a potential loophole for parents to cover up child-abuse deaths, and prosecutors and legislators now want the laws changed.
"We've gotten calls from all over Maryland, and we end up commiserating because we, too, are very concerned about this," said Kristin A. Riggin, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office. "This is a case that just screams out for something to be done."
Police continue to investigate Z'aira's death and note that so far, there is no evidence of homicide and, thus, no reason to arrest her father.
Marshall led police to Z'aira's body Aug. 22, two days after her mother, a New Jersey resident, reported that no relatives had seen the girl since December. Z'aira had been living with her father since July 1998, according to police.
Police said Marshall told them that the girl had died suddenly and that he tried unsuccessfully to revive her. A neighbor said Marshall told her that he "panicked" and left her body in the woods rather than report her death to authorities. Marshall declined a request for an interview.
The state medical examiner is still performing toxicology tests on the decomposed body to determine its identity and cause of death--a process police said could take another two weeks. Investigators have found no broken bones or other potential indications of foul play, Riggin said.
Meanwhile, Marshall apparently broke no law by failing to report his daughter's death to authorities or by leaving her body in the woods, officials said.
Though Maryland law requires doctors and medical examiners to record and report all deaths, no such burden falls on the deceased's relatives or witnesses. Funeral homes and cemeteries also are subject to numerous regulations regarding the proper disposal of bodies, but individuals are not.
"Generally, when we uncover a body, we're dealing with a homicide," said Lt. Jeffrey A. Kelly, a county police spokesman. "Who left the body doesn't become the issue. It's the issue of the greater crime."
In fact, if it were explicitly illegal to dump a body, "it would be a charge that would apply to virtually every [homicide] case," he said.
Yet Riggin said many people are outraged that there is no criminal charge for treating a dead body in a manner they consider deeply disrespectful, especially when laws dictate how to dispose of garbage and where to get a car inspected.
One caller, she said, noted, "If I drag my refrigerator out in the woods, I'm going to be charged with littering."
Technically, State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee could have filed such a charge against Marshall. But Riggin said he found that notion repugnant. "To charge him with littering would completely trivialize her death," she said.
Three state legislators from Anne Arundel said they plan to draft a bill that would punish a clandestine burial and failure to report a death with jail time, fines or both.
"It's outrageous," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. (D-Anne Arundel). "Not only was he going to not bury the body properly, but not even on his own property."
Riggin said the bigger issue is the father's failure to report the death.
"We need to be able to have access to the body so we can determine the cause of death," she said. DeGrange said he and fellow legislators are pondering a requirement to report a death within a certain time period.
District law prohibits anyone with "custody or control" of a dead body from leaving it unburied for more than a week after death, unless it has been cremated or placed in a cemetery vault. Also, no body can be left within public view or scent. Violators can be punished with up to 90 days in jail and a $200 fine.
Virginia law does not require an individual to report a death. However, it prohibits the disposal of a dead body on public property or on private property without the landowner's permission. The crime is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail or a fine of $2,500.
Arlington County Commonwealth's Attorney Richard E. Trodden questioned whether Marshall could be charged with failing to seek medical care for his daughter. Beyond burial or notification questions, "I think the more important issue is obligation of a caregiver to a child," he said.