The murder of 11-year-old Sarah Haley Foxwell in Maryland is already the stuff of legend. Two days before Christmas, the child turned up missing. Her aunt, with whom she lived, had briefly dated a sex offender. As the frantic residents of Salisbury searched for her, panic spread: 3,000 people combed through neighboring fields and forests. She was found dead on Christmas day.
A report in the Baltimore Sun two days after the murder was almost as disturbing as the murder itself. Outraged citizens demand immediate action; exhausted law men forego sleep as they stalk every lead. Lawmakers are quick to demand new laws. No one seems willing to stop to think about the obvious: rage, grief and fear are not the stuff of sound public policy.
Ms. Foxwell is believed to have been murdered by Thomas James Leggs Jr. But as of the day the Sun wrote, Leggs had not been charged with the killing. He was being held without bail. Leggs was convicted of third degree sexual assault in 1998 and, according to the Sun, was designated a "high risk" sex offender for the "rape of a minor" in 2001.
His record is troubling, but it is hard to know just how bad it is. Legg is now 30; in 2001, he would have been 21. The "rape" of a minor may well have been sexual contact with a child too young as a matter of law to give consent. The Sun simply doesn't give any report about the man's sexual history beyond mere incantation.
Legg's reord is enough to for the likes of Jerry Norton, who heads Citizens for Jessica's Law in Maryland. Norton was pestering lawmakers by telephone on Saturday.
"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."
"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."
Maryland lawmakers are already behaving as though they have won a libidinal lottery ticket. State Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford) is screaming for blood. She intends to "go ... as far we can" in tough new laws to crack down on sex offenders. Jacobs co-sponsored Maryland's version of Jessica's Law, a bill passed in 2006 that set sentencing guidelines for child sex offenders. The legistation was named for another child martyr, a 9-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped, sexually abused and killed by a convicted child sex offender. On the legislative docket: abandoning parole of sex offenders, limitations on plea bargaining and permitting wiretapping of suspected sex offenders.
This is not responsible lawmaking. It is pandering to the lowest common denominator in a community torn asunder by grief. In the wake of the great pain and grief caused by the murder of young Miss Foxwell, it is understandable that folks want to rush to do something, anything, to make sure such a crime never happens again. But mass hysteria isn't a reasoned response to evil. Maryland lawmakers resemble nothing so much today as cast members of the old horror film, "Night of the Living Dead." They stumbled along in a twilight of grief, blindly lashing out at phantoms.
Every time the murder of a child becomes national news, we get harsh new laws. There's Megan's Law, Jessica's Law, the Adam Walsh Act, and still Sarah Haley Foxwell was murdered. When will lawmakers learn that throwing printer's ink in the form of new laws at recent grief merely yields a different sort of grief, one visited upon countless others dragged within in the hideous net of overbroad laws passed by folks behaving as though they were at a wake, and not attending to the serious business of passing law.
More and tougher laws about sex offenders will not prevent the abuse of children. Another tragic death is always a heart beat away. The grim logic of those who think we can legislate our way to safety forget the obvious truth that laws are only as good as the people who make them. When hysterics make the rules, everyone gets hurt.
Mourn Sarah Haley Foxwell. Weep over the loss of her life and our lost innocence. But before we pass another law on sex offenders won't someone please stop to think about whether the laws already on the books are doing more harm than good.