If police arrested the right person in the recent Silver Comet bike trail slaying in Northwest Georgia, this means the last thing a 54-year-old mother of three saw before she died was Michael William Ledford’s face. Given Ledford’s record, he shouldn’t have had the freedom to become a suspect in Jennifer Ewing’s death.

Court files on Ledford show a disturbing trend in Ledford’s personal history through the 1980s — a refusal to obey the law.

Ledford kicked off the decade in 1980 with a conviction for kidnapping and robbery in Florida.

Cobb County courts convicted Ledford of impersonating a police officer in 1986.

Two years later, Ledford earned another conviction — this one in Michigan — for breaking and entering.

The 1990s proved a much quieter time in Ledford’s life as his criminal activity ground to a screeching halt. Convicted in 1991 for the rape of a 22-year-old Paulding County woman, Ledford spent the next 10 years in prison. His record as a career criminal who brutalized an innocent woman, however, didn’t deter the Board of Pardon and Paroles from losing interest in his case. Ledford appeared before the board three different times during his incarceration — an average of once every three years.

Deciding that Ledford was rehabilitated — or that his cell was needed for some low-level, nonviolent drug offender — the powers that be released him in 2001.

In April 2002, Ledford became acquainted with law enforcement practices in another state. He pleaded guilty to a false imprisonment charge in Tennessee and spent about five months in jail before being released, again, on probation.

When police found Ewing’s body near the Silver Comet trail last Wednesday, their canvass turned up an interesting fact. Ledford’s address, listed on the state’s sex offender registry, placed him eight miles from where Ewing was killed. Investigators say the convicted felon had just settled down for a cool drink of alcohol to beat the summer heat (a violation of Ledford’s probation) on Thursday when they came calling to see what he knew about Jennifer Ewing’s death.

By Friday, Ledford was in familiar territory — behind bars at Paulding County Jail, this time on charges of felony murder, kidnapping and making false statements.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said in his statement on this case last week that he is proud of how swiftly law enforcement responded. All of us have reason to be proud. The men and women in uniform always fulfill government’s primary responsibility: maintaining order and protecting the population so we can live freely, pay taxes and be good citizens. Where things fall part in fulfilling that responsibility is at the other end of the criminal justice system.

If Ledford is convicted in the Silver Comet bike trail case, then the last face Jennifer Ewing saw before she died was one that has appeared in booking photos in several states. A good case could be made that Michael William Ledford should have been behind bars the day of the slaying. That he wasn’t is simply criminal.

Love of one’s fellow man, says the Gospel writer in Matthew 24:12, becomes much, much harder when evil is left to its own devices.

• Heath Griner is the city editor of The Valdosta Daily Times.

React to this story: