There are certain devastating crimes that shake a culture to its core. These events, although horrific, do have a silver lining. And that is, the crimes help us identify and rectify certain gaps in our legal system.
Here are three terrible crimes that helped change American law—for the better.
The Abduction and Killing of Adam Walsh
Tragedy struck Hollywood, Florida on July 27, 1981. On that day, 6-year-old Adam Walsh went to the local mall with his mom, but he was never again seen alive.
Kidnapped from Sears, Adam’s whereabouts were a mystery for 16 agonizing days. Then, a parent’s worst nightmare occurred. Adam’s decapitated head was found not far from the area in which he was abducted.
Because of this tragedy, one of the glaring issues that came to the forefront was the lack of a centralized system that would alert the public to be on the lookout for a missing child. Adams’s mother spent almost two hours searching for him throughout the mall and its surrounding area. If she was able to immediately alert the public that Adam was missing, there may have been an actual chance of Adam being spotted with his abductor.
Adam’s father is famed television host John Walsh. He channeled his heartbreak into advocacy for missing children. Walsh founded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And, in 2006, President Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. This Act created a national database of convicted child sex offenders, and it strengthened penalties for persons convicted of harming children.
Also, because of Adam’s tragic death, the “Code Adam Program” was started by Walmart and is now used at retail chains across the nation. This program ensures children are recovered quickly and safely if they are lost in a store. In 2003, a law was passed that requires all federal facilities to participate in the Code Adam Program.
Adam’s death was a devastating tragedy, but his spirit lives on through the thousands of children that have been safely recovered due to the laws and programs established in his honor.
The Stalking and Murder of Rebecca Schaeffer
Rebecca Schaeffer was a young actress who starred in the successful 1980s sitcom, My Sister Sam. Rebecca’s life and career were on an upward trajectory, and it appeared that this 21- year-old had the world in the palm of her hand.
Then, one day, her life was cut short by a deranged killer—Robert John Bardo, who had been stalking Schaeffer for months.
Using weak motor vehicle privacy laws to his advantage, Bardo was able to obtain the actress’ home address in West Hollywood. On the day of the murder, Bardo arrived from Arizona at Rebecca’s apartment and asked her for an autograph. Rebecca reluctantly complied, then promptly asked him to leave—which he did. But, the stalker showed back up again a little while later. And when Rebecca opened the door, Bardo shot and killed her.
Bardo was arrested in Arizona the following day and sentenced (in California) to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Rebecca’s murder resulted in America’s first anti-stalking law when California became the inaugural state to criminalize stalking. Additionally, because of Rebecca’ murder, California passed the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which is a law that prohibits the DMV from releasing people’s home addresses.
Kitty Genovese ‘s Killing
There exists a sociological phenomenon called “the bystander effect.” In a nutshell – it simply means that people lose their moral compass when they are in a crowd. A tragic example of this concept occurred deep in the night on March 13, 1964 in the New York City neighborhood of Kew Gardens, Queens.
On that night, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stalked, stabbed, raped and murdered by a vile criminal. The attack lasted a few minutes, and during the entire horrifying experience, Kitty cried out for help. But, no one came to her aid in the densely populated urban landscape.
This terrible crime revealed a few issues that needed to be resolved, and while it is difficult to change the collective behavior of any entire city, there was one aspect that could be rectified.
And that was the efficiency of contacting emergency responders. At this point in history, 9-1-1 did not exist. Citizens would either dial “0” for the operator or dial the entire number for the area police. The phone call would then be routed through a communications bureau, which in turn would relay the message to the precinct that was nearest to the emergency.
Many believe that Kitty’s neighbors did contact the police, but their calls were lost or mishandled due to the convoluted communications system that existed. About four years after the tragedy, a Presidential Commission was established to develop a universal emergency reporting system that would utilize one nationwide, simple number. The result was 9-1-1. And, the first call using this system was made on February 16, 1968 in Haleyville, Alabama.
Kitty’s murder was a senseless and brutal act, but her legacy lives on, as she was the inspiration for the development of 9-1-1. Today, any person in the US can reach the police by dialing that three-digit number.
While these crimes are certainly not the entire list of horrific acts that prompted change, they are certainly seminal cases. Can you think of any other modern crimes that led to a positive legal change in America?
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