Stunned by the not-guilty verdicts this week in Florida's Casey Anthony murder case, state Senate Republican leader Nancy Jacobs wants Maryland parents who do not report the death of a child to be subject to felony charges.
Jacobs said dozens of outraged constituents have contacted her and asked her to do something. She said she is drafting a bill to introduce in the next legislative session.
She's now looking into criminalizing the failure of a parent, guardian or legal caretaker to inform authorities that a child has gone missing or has died — new crime categories that several local top prosecutors said could prove helpful to them.
A Florida jury acquitted Anthony of murder and child abuse in the death of 2-year-old Caylee, convicting her of less-serious charges related to lying to the police. A judge sentenced the 25-year-old to four years, the maximum sentence under the law. Because of the time she served while awaiting trial, she is to be released July 13.
While jurors who have spoken with the news media said prosecutors did not present enough evidence to prove murder or abuse beyond a reasonable doubt, those involved with the case, including Anthony's defense attorneys, agree that the young mother did not report her child's death in a timely manner.
That's where Jacobs hopes to step in if a similar Maryland case ever were to arise.
"People are saying to me, 'Good grief, that woman's as guilty as can be, and they're not doing anything,'" said Jacobs, a Republican representing Harford and Cecil counties.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger says making it illegal for parents to leave a child's death unreported is a good idea — and would be another tool for prosecutors in the event of an Anthony-style situation.
"I think under the right, unique circumstances it would be very helpful," Shellenberger said.
Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Casilly said the proposed legislation appears to close a loophole. "You wouldn't think that you would actually have to require a parent or guardian to report a child missing or dead, but we're in an age where there is a need here," Casilly said.
High-profile crimes frequently inspire local legislators to take action.
Reacting to the December 2009 kidnapping and death of Sarah Foxwell on the Eastern Shore, to which a registered sex offender later pleaded guilty, state lawmakers proposed dozens of sex-offender bills.
Jacobs, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and scores of other lawmakers backed those efforts, leading to, among other laws, new reporting provisions about when a child is in regular contact with a known sex offender. Foxwell's guardian had been dating Thomas Leggs Jr., who now is serving a life sentence for killing the 11-year-old.
Although some lawmakers and defense attorneys have warned against legislating in reaction to an emotional, headline-grabbing crime, Shellenberger said he knows from experience that it can have practical implications in the courtroom — even if they come years later.
One striking example: Baltimore County was able to prosecute and convict David Miller not only for the first-degree murder of Elizabeth Walters, but also for the death of her unborn baby. The 24-year-old had been pregnant when Miller shot her outside a shopping plaza.
Medical examiners determined that Walters' fetus would have been viable outside of the womb, triggering a seldom-used Maryland law that had been on the books since the early 1990s. Lawmakers had passed it after being inspired by a controversial case in California.
"It's a good example of a law where, eventually, the facts were there to use it," Shellenberger said.
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