A South Carolina mother has been granted permission to sue the U.S. Army in the beating death of her little girl in a case that could force the Pentagon to take a hard look at its duties to families stationed on base.
Tarshia Williams' 5-year-old daughter Talia was beaten to death on a Hawaii Army base after what she charged were repeated failures on the part of military personnel to protect her daughter from obvious signs of abuse, allegedly at the hands of her father and stepmother.
In his ruling, federal Judge Alan Kay cast aside the Army's defense that the government does not have a duty to report or act on claims of child abuse, saying there was enough evidence to go to trial over accusations that the military police and other Army employees were negligent.
"There was instance after instance after instance in which the appropriate investigation would have revealed how at-risk this child was," said Mark Davis, Williams' Honolulu-based attorney, told ABCNews.com. "The system just repeatedly failed."
While all states have some type of child protection services where complaints and allegations are logged, the Army typically handles such matters on its own through military police and the Army Family Advocacy Program.
Even an Army major general noted in an investigation into Talia's death, according to court documents, that there was "a series of missed opportunities to potentially prevent the death of the child."
Talia Williams died in July 2005 after a severe beating to the head. The autopsy report stated she suffered from "battered child syndrome."
Davis said he wants this lawsuit to be a "call to arms" that the Army, if it's going to have its own procedures to protect children outside of state laws, needs to act more responsibly than it did in the Williams case.
This case, he said, could be precedent-setting.
Military legal expert Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School and is the president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said Army agrees to certain responsibilities when it offers youth and family services on base.
In this case, he said, it appears the federal government failed Talia Williams.
"This is a quite, quite unusual case," Fidell said. "It's also a wake-up call to the Pentagon to make sure that these programs are not an automatic pilot."
Kay also ruled that despite federal procedures, the Army was not exempt from Hawaii's Good Samaritan laws that call for suspected child abuse to be reported and investigated.
U.S. Attorney Thomas Helper, assigned to defend the government, did not comment on Kay's ruling.
Army spokeswoman Betsy Weiner told ABCNews.com, "The Army cannot comment on pending litigation."
Fidell said he expected the Army would appeal.
"This is by no means over," he said.
Delilah Williams, Talia's stepmother, pleaded guilty and received 20 years in prison in exchange for testifying against her husband. Naeem Williams' death penalty trial is scheduled to start in January. The capital felony charge was ordered by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.
Williams' lawsuit notes several incidents that should have, she charges, raised red flags for authorities at Wheeler Army Air Force Base where Talia lived with Naeem and Delilah Williams.
"This is essentially about a botched investigation of child abuse," Davis said. "They had more than just allegations."