By Del Quentin Wilber and Lisa Goldberg The Baltimore Sun March 24, 2001
(Eastern Shore, MD) - The mother of two children killed by her estranged husband on the Eastern Shore in 1999 filed a $20 million federal lawsuit yesterday alleging that Maryland State Police and Howard County officials should have done more to prevent the deaths.
The killings of the two children focused attention on widespread flaws in the state's protective order database - a system designed to prevent people from illegally obtaining handguns.
In this case, Richard W. Spicknall and his wife were involved in a divorce and custody battle over their children in 1998 in Howard County Circuit Court when Lisa Marie Spicknall applied for and was granted a protective order. The Howard County sheriff's office entered the protective order into the state database but inadvertently removed it, allowing Richard Spicknall to buy a handgun in early September 1999.
Spicknall was sentenced to life in prison without parole in November after being convicted in the deaths of his 3-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.
Lisa Spicknall could not be reached for comment. Her lawyer, Bambi Glenn, said her client wants to focus attention on problems in the system.
"It was paid a lot of lip service and got a lot of media attention for a while, and nothing was done about it," Glenn said. "Here we are, 18 months later, and people are still pointing fingers at each other."
The suit names the state police; its superintendent, Col. David B. Mitchell; the Howard County sheriff; and the Howard County Circuit Court clerk as defendants.
Assistant Attorney General Betty Stempley Sconion, who represents the state police, said the agency acted properly.
"I think a court would agree, once it reviews the allegations, that liability does not lie with the department of state police or any of its individual members," she said.
Howard County Circuit Court Clerk Margaret D. Rappaport said "it appears none of our employees did anything improper."
Howard County Sheriff Charles M. Cave could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Maryland State Police knew there were flaws in the system months before the killings, according to state documents.
Pointing to those documents, the lawsuit alleges that state police "were in reckless disregard" for not acting to adequately correct the problems.
State courts issue protective orders, and local police and sheriffs enter them into the state's database, which state police use to approve or reject gun purchases.
State police are required to audit the system and ensure local departments are entering protective orders correctly. But audits conducted by state police before the killings showed that many orders were not being entered into the system and that others had flaws.
In those documents, state police said that 86 percent of orders had errors, but officials said most of those were minor mistakes.
Audits conducted several months after the killings showed that 22 percent of protective orders had "critical errors" that would have allowed someone to purchase a gun.
State police said more recent audits show that the critical error rate has shrunk to less than 1 percent. The state database contains more than 7,500 protective orders.
State police also said they have stepped up efforts against illegal handgun purchases. Officials now search more than 13 databases and have begun using application forms that more clearly spell out who can and cannot buy a gun.
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