Sex Offender Bills Clear House

ANNAPOLIS – With the 2010 Maryland General Assembly session entering its final stretch, several bills germane to the area finally started moving this week as the deadline for proposed legislation to cross from one chamber to the other rapidly approaches.

Crossover Day, or the point in the session calendar when legislation introduced in the House must be approved and sent over to the Senate, or vice versa, arrives on Monday, putting thousands of bills submitted by state lawmakers on the clock. Bills can cross over after Monday, but it requires an approved suspension of the rules, a difficult process that can often leave many pieces of legislation on the table without a final vote.

One of the hot-button issues this session has been strengthening Maryland’s sex offender laws, spurred largely by the tragedy in the Salisbury area in late December that claimed the life of 11-year-old Sarah Haley Foxwell, whose body was found near Delmar on Christmas Day. In February, Thomas James Leggs, 30, a registered sex offender in both Maryland and Delaware, was indicted on first-degree murder charges in the death of Foxwell and the tragic case has promulgated renewed scrutiny of Maryland’s sexual predator laws.

This week, the House unanimously approved two sex offender laws, including House Bill 936, which if approved would bring Maryland into compliance with the Adam Walsh Act, a federal law dictating the states approve and enforce stricter laws for sexual predators.

Also approved the week by the House and sent over to the Senate for approval was House Bill 1046, which, among other things, would prohibit District Court-level commissioners from authorizing a pre-trial release of a defendant who is a registered sex offender, instead passing the responsibility to a judge or a jury. The bill is particularly poignant in the Foxwell case because Leggs was out on bail in December when he allegedly kidnapped, assaulted and killed the girl. Leggs had been arrested in Ocean City in September after breaking into a woman’s apartment and being in the dark with his pants down, but he was released on a relatively small bond because the court commissioner was unaware of his sexually violent past.

While the two bills breezed through with unanimous House votes, many other pieces of legislation aimed at strengthening Maryland’s sexual predator laws remain in their respective chambers as cross-over day nears.

Among them is the Sex Offender Omnibus Act of 2010, introduced by the Eastern Shore delegation including Worcester County Delegates James Mathias and Norm Conway.

As its name suggests, the omnibus bill covers a wealth of sex offender issues including stronger registration compliance programs, longer mandatory jail terms for convicted sex offenders, more information included on sex offender registries and a somewhat controversial civil commitment component.

A civil commitment allows a judge or jury to determine whether a convicted sex offender who appears to meet the definition of a sexually violent predator should be released to the community after completing his or her jail term, or if they should be indefinitely confined in a secure facility operated by the state’s Department of Social and Health Services.

In the Foxwell case, Leggs might have been ordered to confinement in a facility for known violent predators following his release on prior convictions if Maryland, or Delaware for that matter, had a civil commitment component in its sex offender arsenal. Unfortunately, there are countless other examples of tragedies that could have been avoided if a civil commitment option had been available.

During sex offender bill hearings this week, two former victims assaulted and abused by repeat offenders who had skirted the system testified on behalf of approving a civil commitment alternative in Maryland. One was Charity Hankle Holley, who at age 9 was abducted and sexually tortured by a known predator who had just been released after serving eight years of a 12-year sentence for sexual assault. Her attacker, John Leroy Kroll, was sentenced to 30 years in jail, but with credits for good time served is eligible for release later this year.

Another victim who testified during House hearings this week was Martin Andrews, who was abducted near his home in Virginia in 1973 by a known repeat sexual predator and kept in a box buried in the woods and repeatedly tortured and sexually abused for a week by his captor until hunters discovered him. Andrews survived his ordeal and in the decades since has become a strong activist for civil commitment of sexually violent predators.

Mathias said this week civil commitment is perhaps the strongest weapon state lawmakers can approve during the current General Assembly session and pushed for its passage.

“To have these victims here and listen to the testimony carried a lot of weight,” he said. “These things are just unconscionable and inconceivable. Having a civil commitment law on the books could have prevented these tragedies and if it was in place, it might have prevented the Foxwell tragedy.”

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