Her voice cracking, Lisa Fields Spicknall told Maryland lawmakers yesterday that she blamed a breakdown in the state's judicial and law enforcement systems for the deaths of her two toddlers, who allegedly were slain by her estranged husband after state police mistakenly allowed him to buy a handgun.
"I do not want to see anyone else suffer the pain and heartache that I live through daily," Spicknall said at a special hearing in the House of Delegates in Annapolis. "I do not want to see innocent lives extinguished because people were too busy pointing fingers at each other to just solve the problems that needed to be solved."
On Sept. 9, according to police, Spicknall's estranged husband, Richard Wayne Spicknall II, of Laurel, shot the couple's 3-year-old daughter, Destiny Array, and their 2-year-old son, Richard Wayne Spicknall III, as they sat strapped into the back seat of their grandfather's Jeep.
Police said Richard Spicknall killed his children with a 9mm Smith & Wesson handgun that he had bought a week earlier from a College Park pawnshop after he passed a Maryland State Police background check. The background check failed to discover that Spicknall was the subject of a domestic violence restraining order that his wife had obtained in December 1998--a legal ruling that prohibited him from owning or possessing a firearm.
Authorities have since attributed the mix-up to a clerical error by an employee in the Howard County sheriff's department, who accidentally deleted records of the restraining order from law enforcement computer systems. Yesterday, 24-year-old Lisa Spicknall said the explanation has not been easy to accept.
"Every day, I wonder what I could have done differently to avoid this nightmare," she said. "I ask myself, 'How did I fail my children?' Every day, I have the same answer. I did not fail Destiny and Richie--the system failed Destiny and Richie, as did their father. If [he] had been unable to purchase a handgun lawfully, my children would most likely still be alive."
When Richard Spicknall was arrested, the names of thousands of alleged wife beaters, child abusers and others subjected to restraining orders also were missing from law enforcement computer databases that the state police and the FBI use to conduct background checks, records show.
Members of the House of Delegates convened a hearing yesterday to investigate the problem and invited Lisa Spicknall--who spoke publicly for the first time about the deaths of her children--to testify in an effort to underscore the consequences.
Left unsaid and unremarked upon was Lisa Spicknall's attempt to seek $1 million in damages from some of the state and county officials who surrounded her in the conference room where she spoke.
On Nov. 4, Spicknall filed a legal claim with the state treasurer in which she served notice that she intends to sue the Maryland State Police, the Howard County sheriff's department and the Howard County clerk of Circuit Court for negligence and "constitutional violations."
The document stated that Spicknall would be willing to avoid a lawsuit if the state and county agencies would agree to settle the case beforehand for $1 million.
Under Maryland's Tort Claims Act, anyone who wants to sue a state agency or state employees must first file a claim with the state treasurer's Insurance Division. That gives the state an opportunity to settle a monetary claim before a lawsuit is filed.
Thomas C. Kelley Jr., director of the Insurance Division, said officials in the treasurer's office have not yet responded to the Spicknall case. Lisa Spicknall's attorney, Bambi Glenn of Baltimore, did not return a phone call yesterday.
In testimony yesterday, law enforcement officials told the committee that they have gotten rid of a backlog of restraining orders that had been allowed to accumulate in recent months.
Many sheriffs and local police departments have acknowledged that, until recently, they had taken several weeks or months to enter restraining orders in law enforcement computer systems. They are supposed to be entered immediately after they are approved by a judge.
"There is no backlog of filing of any protective orders in any sheriff's office," said Anne Arundel County Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, president of the Maryland Sheriffs Association. "The backlogs are gone. They no longer exist."
Other officials said they were not so sure that all restraining orders are being processed properly.
In Baltimore, for instance, police officials recently reported that they do not have a backlog. At the same time, department officials acknowledged that they do have a pile of 450 restraining orders that they have not been able to enter into computer databases because they are missing vital information--such as the dates of birth of the accused abusers--that the courts are supposed to provide.
As of Saturday, there were 6,385 restraining orders entered into Maryland's law enforcement computer systems, said State Police Capt. Robert L. Scruggs. That is nearly double the number on record in June.
Court officials said they cannot give an accurate count of the number of restraining orders in effect at any given time. But records show that about 8,300 orders are granted each year in Maryland and that the vast majority of them are supposed to remain in effect for a year.
"The fact of the matter is, I don't know how big the backlog is," state police Superintendent David B. Mitchell told lawmakers.
CAPTION: Lisa Fields Spicknall, right, testifies before a special meeting of the Maryland House of Delegates, with Jodi Finkelstein, of the Lieutenant Governor's Family Violence Council.