We have an interesting case here in my backyard in Fairfax County, Virginia. A Fairfax County jury deliberated only 10 minutes before acquitting Sean Lanigan, 43, a popular schoolteacher and coach of aggravated sexual battery and abduction. The jury’s reaction and the paucity of evidence in the case has led some to question why prosecutors brought the case in the first place. They were back within 47 minutes to find him innocent on all charges.
Lanigan was accused by a 12-year-old girl at Centre Ridge Elementary School in Centreville of picking her up in the school gym, carrying her into an equipment room, laying her down on a mat and massaging her shoulders and groping her. The married father of three denied the allegations and said he often picks up students and twirls them around like his own kids.
The girl’s testimony was contradicted by several witnesses, including testimony that there are no mats in the equipment room. The girl also admitted that she had a grudge against Lanigan for threatening to punish her for bullying of other kids. She also admitted on the stand that Lanigan did not actually ever touch her buttocks but in fact came into contact only with her upper leg.
The accuser’s best friend — another sixth-grade girl — also contradicted her testimony and said that she saw Lanigan pick up the alleged victim in fun and that he did not touch her inappropriately. She also testified that the alleged victim told her that they “needed to get their stories straight” immediately after the alleged incident.
Other classmates testified that the accuser “hated Lanigan” and boasted about “trying to sue the school for money.”
Jurors said that it actually took them just ten minutes to reach their unanimous verdict, which is remarkably short given the time needed to organize and tally votes. One juror Jacklyn West is quoted as saying “There was no evidence. There was no case.” Another juror added, “It was an easy decision. I just hope Mr. Lanigan can get his life back.” That remains to be seen. Fairfax school officials has said that, despite the speedy acquittal and lack of evidence, they could still bar him from returning. They say that they are examining the evidence in the case.
Others have questioned why the prosecution continued with witnesses contradicting the girl on so many points. There is also the issue of over-charging on the abduction claim. While prosecutors understandably do not want to drop a prosecution simply because it was a “he said/she said” case (after all, many molesters guarantee that abuse occurs without witnesses), this case involved contradicting witnesses, a prior hostility shown to the coach by the accuser, and direct contraction of other material facts in the police report — including the girl’s own recantation of part of the allegations.
Jurors tend to rule with prosecutors in molestation cases on the most circumstantial grounds. Such allegations paint the defendant in a dark light that is difficult to overcome for the defense. In this case, it took ten minutes to vote unanimously to acquit and less than an hour to end the case. That should carry weight with the Fairfax school officials in making their own decision whether to allow this popular teacher to return to work.
This case is a victory also for defense counsel Peter D. Greenspun.
Neighbors and friends helped the Lanigan family survive with free meals and other assistance during the long ordeal.