By Rick Hampson
When Amanda Moore concluded that her daughter's killer was a drug addict wrongly paroled and wrongly allowed to remain free, she did like many parents before her: she proposed legislation to spare others the same fate. She named it for her child: Amelia's Law (Facebook, Web Site).
For the past two decades, parents who've lost children in horrible ways have tried to memorialize them in law, and Americans usually have honored their wishes.
Dozens of state and federal statutes are named for children who died too soon: Megan's Law and Jessica's Law, the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. There's Kendra's Law, Leandra's Law and Lauren's Law, three Jacob's Laws and at least three Laura's Laws.
But, as Amanda Moore has discovered, support for many of these child victim memorials, or "apostrophe laws," is waning.
Few such bills now before lawmakers promise to have anything like the impact of a Megan's Law, which gives the public access to information about sex offenders.And some probably won't become law at all:
In Tennessee, a tight state budget has blocked Amelia's Law, which would make parole tougher for serious offenders, and Dustin's Law, which would honor a son killed in a collision with an intoxicated driver by imposing stiffer DUI penalties.
In South Carolina, Emma's Law and Jaidon's Law both are stalled. The first, which would require ignition locks for some first-time DUI offenders, faces objections that it's too harsh; the second, to weaken child custody rights of drug-addicted parents, runs against a state policy favoring family reunification.
In Indiana, Sheena's Law — named for a daughter killed by a neighbor in an apartment complex and designed to allow renters who've been crime victims to break their leases — has been thwarted by landlords who say it could be abused by tenants to get out of leases.
For grieving parents seeking to redeem their loss, such rejection is agonizing. "I just wanted to do something positive," says Deborah Kiska, who backed Sheena's Law. "People needed to know that my daughter stood on this earth."
A LAW TOO FARThere are several reasons why the popularity of child victim memorial laws may have peaked:
1. The recession and its aftermath have made officials across the political spectrum hesitant to increase costs, including those stemming from new criminal cases, more prisoners and longer sentences.
Amelia's Law and Dustin's Law have stalled because they'd each cost Tennessee hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
California, which faces a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding, is one of several states trying to lower its inmate population. Vanita Gupta, ACLU deputy legal director, says that while legislators want to honor crime victims, "States are too broke to afford emotion-criminal justice policymaking."
2. The drop in the crime rate — violent crime in the U.S. has decreased in 15 of the past 17 years — has made tougher laws, like those often named for child victims, less politically compelling.
"The atmosphere has shifted," says Marc Maurer, director of the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates alternatives to incarceration.
In a sign of the times, California's landmark "Three Strikes" sentencing law, enacted in 1994 with support from parents of several children murdered by repeat offenders, was softened last year in a referendum. More than 3,000 felons serving life terms under Three Strikes became eligible to seek a reduced sentence; the state could save tens of millions yearly in prison costs.
3. The lower-hanging fruit has been picked.
The most obvious and popular legal changes designed to protect children already have been adopted, leaving would-be memorializers the less significant or more controversial.
The former include proposals like Laura's Law in Nevada (to provide families of fatal accident victims with broader civil remedies against EMTs in some cases of gross negligence) and Stephanie's Law (to provide "panic buttons" for Massachusetts group home workers).
The latter include tougher gun laws, a goal that eluded parents of children lost to gun violence long before a group from Newtown, Conn., unsuccessfully advocated federal background checks.
Skip Griffin, a University of Nevada-Reno criminologist, says sympathy gets parents only so far in politics. "Punishing really bad people is easy," he says. "Guns is something else. A lot of people own them."
A lot of people also make a mistake and learn from it. But, in contrast to the traditional apostrophe law focus on repeat predators, two of the now-stalled proposals — Emma's Law and Dustin's Law — target some first-time DUI offenders.
Another example of the hurdles facing parents is Cristina's Law, a proposal named after a New Jersey teen killed last year by a co-worker at a supermarket.
The killer had previously expressed murderous thoughts in online posts, and the law would require employers to check job applicants' social media sites during background checks.
But Cristina's Law's chances may be crippled by a growing concern about online privacy. The New Jersey Assembly last year passed legislation to ban employers even from asking potential hires if they have an online presence and from making them disclose user names and passwords.
4. Many legal and other academic experts say that what the ACLU's Gupta calls "lawmaking by anecdote," in which parents' emotional appeals trump more dispassionate assessments, is a bad way to make law — especially criminal law.
Griffin, the Reno criminologist, says parents can distort a policy debate: "Who's going to say no to them? How do you say, 'We can't afford this.' All they have to say is who they are and what they support. They don't have to be able to speak like Barack Obama. Their story is enough."
Mauer, of the Sentencing Project, recalls a radio debate with Mike Reynolds, who was a driving force behind California's Three Strikes law. His daughter Kimber had been murdered by a repeat offender on parole who was wanted for a series of other robberies and assaults. "You only want to argue so much with them, given what happened to them," Mauer says.
Griffin has studied the Amber Alert system for reporting missing children (named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old abducted and murdered in Texas in 1996). He says such lawmaking can amount to "crime-control theater," which makes voters feel good and politicians look good, but doesn't accomplish much.
Mauer cites, as another example of that, some public sex offender registries, which "may give us a distorted perception of where most child sex abuse takes place."
"You may tell your kid, 'Don't play on that street, a sex offender lives there,'" he says, although statistically the greater threat is not a stranger but someone known by the child who lives close to home, or in it.
IMPASSIONED SUPPORTThose who've advocated child memorial laws say parents have a uniquely valuable perspective.
"If you've lived in the world of violence, like we have, you realize certain things," says John Walsh, host of the TV program America's Most Wanted since its inception in 1988.
His son Adam was kidnapped in a shopping mall in Florida in 1981 and murdered. Walsh lobbied for the 2006 federal law named for Adam, which required the most serious sex offenders to update their whereabouts every three months and created a national sex offender registry. (In 1994, Wal-Mart had named the missing child protocol in its stores "Code Adam" after the boy.)
- And it was never proven that Adam was sexually assaulted or if the offender was a known or unknown sex offender as well. So instead of making a law punishing murderers he went after sex offenders?
Academics who criticize such law-making "live in a rarified environment," says Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter Polly was kidnapped and strangled in 1993, giving impetus to California's Three Strikes law. "Their alternate universe is never touched by these types of crimes. No one gets paroled to a university campus."
Yet critics of memorial laws have a point: Although it might be designed to benefit society, at heart the law is about the child. As Maria LoBrutto, the mother proposing Cristina's Law puts it, "We have to do something to keep Cristina's name alive."
And, on some level, they do it for themselves. "It's not really us, to be giving speeches," says Maria's husband, Eddie, a carpenter. "But fighting for our daughter, that's what's keeping us going, helping us cope with what we're going through."
Amanda Moore knows what he means.
AMELIA'S STORYWhat's worse than standing at the spot where your daughter died minutes earlier? This: Police at the scene telling you they're very familiar with the driver of the other car, and one officer saying, "This was not an accident. This man murdered your daughter."
That's how Amanda Moore says she first heard of [name withheld], 44, who on Aug. 15, in Maryville, Tenn., drifted across three lanes of traffic while doing 73 in a 55 zone.
He slammed head-on into a car driven by Moore's daughter, Amelia Keown, a 16-year-old high school junior heading home after class to pick up her pom-poms for dance team practice.
Two nights after Amelia's funeral, sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of her home in the country outside Knoxville, Moore says she had two impulses. One was to forget what the cop said, because she didn't want to be angry. The other was "to know how bad a guy he really was."
The second won out. Minutes later she was at her computer, checking crime databases for Perkins, who'd died the day after the crash.
What she discovered over the next few days shocked her: Perkins' record included 21 felony convictions, including theft, drug possession and delivery, violation of probation, contempt of court, evading police, escape and robbery.
In 2009, he was sentenced to 12 years for aggravated robbery. He was released after serving four, even though Perkins' prison records indicated that in interviews he never expressed remorse for his crimes and that he tested positive for drugs in prison.
Although he'd been arrested for shoplifting after his release, fined and placed on probation, court documents did not indicate he was on parole, and thus liable to have it revoked.
Perkins had been in six car accidents in two years, including five in the past nine months, two of them head-on. He blamed several on mechanical failure, and he never was tested for drugs. His parole officer was never notified.
On the day he plowed into Amelia, tests showed, Perkins had methamphetamine and a toxic level of oxycodone in his system.
"Every day when I learned something new, it was like another kick in the face," Moore says. "But I said, 'She's not gonna be forgotten.' She's not just another little girl killed on the highway."
Determined to keep people like Perkins off the street, Moore assembled a 200-page indexed copy of his record in a three-ring binder with Amelia's photo on the cover.
She gave copies to state legislators and enlisted sponsors and supporters for a bill to toughen the state's sentencing law.
She ended up having to settle for a more modest proposal. It would increase from three to four the number of parole board members needed to release an inmate convicted of certain felonies, and make more probation and parole officers' case notes available to the public.
But the bill was stopped this year by its estimated annual cost — $668,800 to house inmates who'd otherwise be paroled. "It all came down to money," she says. "Is that more important than public safety?"
Moore, 39, works in computer sales. She and her husband are raising another daughter. The political winds may be against her, but she says she'll be back to the state capital next year, again trying to make sure Amelia was not just another girl killed on the highway.