SALISBURY — Accused murderer Thomas Leggs, charged with kidnapping, raping and killing an 11-year-old girl in Salisbury in 2009, will spend the rest of his life behind bars after a plea agreement was reached last week, removing the option for the death penalty while ensuring consecutive sentences of life without the possibility of parole.
Leggs, 31, of Salisbury, was indicted in January 2010 on first-degree murder, kidnapping, a first-degree sex offense and other charges for the death of Sarah Haley Foxwell, whose body was found near Delmar in late December 2009 after a massive search conducted by thousands of volunteers and area law enforcement agencies.
Because prosecutors expressed early on their intention to seek the death penalty in the case, Leggs’ trial was moved to Cecil County last year. Wicomico County State’s Attorney Matt Maciarello, elected last November, decided to have former state’s attorney Davis Ruark take the lead on the case rather than change the prosecution team in midstream.
The trial was scheduled to begin later this month, but the case was closed this week after prosecutors reached a plea agreement with Leggs and his defense team that would take the death penalty off the table in exchange for a guilty plea on all charges. As a result, Leggs on Tuesday pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and first-degree sex offense, for which he was sentenced to consecutive terms of life without the possibility of parole.
He also pleaded guilty to kidnapping, for which he was sentenced to a consecutive term of 30 years, and first-degree burglary, for which he was sentenced to 20 years. In addition, Leggs agreed to be returned to Wicomico County to be interviewed by the Wicomico County Bureau of Investigation, an interview during which he was required to truthfully answer any and all of the victim’s family’s questions about the horrific crime. That interview took place last Thursday. Leggs will also be interviewed by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, which studies pedophiles and uses the information to assist agencies identify and arrest potential child sex offenders faster.
Maciarello said in a statement the decision to accept the plea arrangement and forego a lengthy and painful trial came after several meetings with the victim’s family.
“While the law in the state of Maryland leaves the discretion of seeking the death penalty solely to the state’s attorney for each county, that discretion cannot be exercised in a vacuum,” he said. “In virtually every case, the victim of a death penalty-eligible case leaves behind loved ones. The Sarah Foxwell-Thomas Leggs case is no exception.”
Maciarello said despite his confidence in a conviction at trial, the lengthy appeals process would subject the family to years and years of anguish without closure.
“Given the history of the death penalty in the state of Maryland and the wishes of the victim’s family, I reached the conclusion that despite the fact the law provides for the penalty of death, and that I personally feel that Thomas Leggs deserves to be executed, nonetheless, I do not feel that I should force Sarah Foxwell’s family to suffer a life of constant upheaval and turmoil,” he said. “A death sentence for Thomas Leggs would have resulted in a life sentence for the Foxwell family.”
Macariello added the decision was supported by the law enforcement agencies that investigated the case.
“The Foxwell family has told me that they do not want a lifetime of anguish and appeals,” he said. “Due to the extreme stress, havoc and grief the death of Sarah has caused them, and their need to begin healing from this horrible, despicable crime, and because they wished to protect Sarah’s sister, a 7-year-old material witness in the case, they have unanimously requested that we withdraw our notice to seek the death penalty in consideration for the plea agreement placed on the record today.”
Maciarello acknowledged the decision would not be popular in all corners of the Lower Shore.
“I am aware that this case has piqued the interest and sympathy, not only of Wicomico County, but the entire lower Eastern Shore,” he said. “I am also aware that my decision to withdraw the notice to seek the death penalty will disappoint some, but I am confident that the decision is in the best interest of justice.”
Maciarello said his personal choice would have been a death sentence for Leggs, but stood behind the decision to accept a plea to put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
“Some cases are so serious that the death penalty is the appropriate punishment,” he said. “In my judgment, the case of the state v. Thomas Leggs is one of those cases. Soon after the arrest of Thomas Leggs, the state weighed the facts of this case as provided by state law and determined that the aggravating facts of this case, which I choose not to go into at this time out of dignity to the victim and her family, clearly outweighed any mitigating factors, of which there were none.”