Opinion

Blood on their hands

Governor Rick Perry’s actions in the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham have drawn fire from the national news media, but it’s the case of another Texan, Rodney Williams, that has greater potential to explode in the Lone Star State.

Williams raped and sodomized a five-year-old Houston girl in a bloody 2009 crime. He was caught, convicted and sentenced to three life terms plus 720 years.

Now, three years later, we know it was a crime that never had to happen. Williams was known to Texas law enforcement before he ever got his hands on his victim. Like thousands of other child predators in the Lone Star State, he was left at large to commit his crimes unmolested.

To understand the Williams case, it’s necessary to know a little about the modern fight against child sexual exploitation.

Since 2007, top officials in Washington, Texas and across the U.S. have been briefed by law enforcement on a standard set of facts. The whereabouts of predatory pedophiles in their districts and states are now known. The evidence comes from investigations into online traffic in child rape videos and photos. At least 40% of these suspects are believed to be sexually assaulting children in their communities. And their locations are plotted on maps.

Yet, despite this knowledge, many politicians have made the choice to sideline police.

In Texas, tens of thousands of these criminals are on law enforcement radar now, and top state officials have been shown the maps. In Houston in October of 2009, one of those suspects was Rodney Williams, and police had him dead to rights.

According to testimony before a Texas House committee earlier this year, understaffed and overwhelmed investigators made a fateful decision to leave Williams at large while they caught up on backlogged cases.

Three months later, a distraught woman called from a corner store, with a five-year-old child in tow. She had just discovered a computer memory card in her boyfriend’s home with crime scene images of him sexually assaulting the five-year-old. It was Rodney Williams.

“That’s something I’ll have to live with the rest of my life,” the officer testified, taking on a moral burden that belonged on other shoulders.

Admissions like this are extremely rare in law enforcement, but attacks on children by known traffickers occur daily.

In 2007, a group of parents of murdered and abducted children gathered in Washington to demand action against these atrocities. I joined them at a National Press Club briefing, where we presented the magnitude of the crisis and the fact that state and federal politicians were refusing to act.

This effort ultimately resulted in passage of major (still largely unfunded) legislation sponsored by Senators Joe Biden (D-DE) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Joe Barton (R-TX).

The parents wanted to launch a national campaign of their own, using a bloody handprint as their logo. “They have blood on their hands,” the band of wounded warriors said again and again.

I counseled against such language. It would be perceived as terribly unfair and could backfire. You can’t accuse elected officials of being personally responsible for the rape and murder of children, I believed. Not even members of Congress behave like that (at least not in 2007).

But hearing a humble cop stand before a panel of politicians in Austin and take personal responsibility for events leading up to the rape of a five-year-old child — when the blood was on their hands, not his — changed my mind.