Fairfax teacher found not guilty of molesting girl

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; 2:19 PM

A Fairfax County jury needed only 47 minutes Thursday to find a popular schoolteacher not guilty of molesting a 12-year-old girl in their school gym this year.

Sean Lanigan, 43, smiled and tears flowed among his dozens of supporters in the courtroom as the verdicts were read clearing Lanigan of charges of aggravated sexual battery and abduction. The case against him hinged on the testimony of two sixth-grade girls at Centre Ridge Elementary School in Centreville, who said Lanigan had scooped up one of the girls in the middle of the school gym, carried her into an equipment room, laid her down on a mat and massaged her shoulders, groping her in the process.

Lanigan testified Wednesday that he did no such thing. The married father of three said he treated students the way he treated his children, picking them up, twirling them around, laughing and joking. He taught at Centre Ridge for 12 years and coached youth soccer throughout Northern Virginia for 20 years.

Lanigan and five other people testified that there were no mats in the equipment room where the girls said he carried one of them. The main accuser, who acknowledged having a grudge against Lanigan for threatening to discipline her for her bullying behavior on the school bus patrol, alleged that Lanigan briefly touched her breast and buttock during the incident.

Jurors said the prosecution had no case, and after reading their legal instructions, it took the seven women and five men about 10 minutes to come to their unanimous decision.

"It was an easy decision," said juror Asmaa al-Ghafari. "I just hope Mr. Lanigan can get his life back."

"There was no evidence," juror Jacklyn West said. "There was no case."

Lanigan, who was thrilled by the verdict, said his arrest, suspension without pay and subsequent publicity had destroyed his life. When his attorney, Peter D. Greenspun, discussed the devastation to Lanigan in his closing argument, West broke down in tears and the trial was briefly recessed.

West and other jurors said the 12-year-old accuser "had no idea of the consequences" of accusing Lanigan of molesting her. "This poor man. That's why I cried."

Fairfax County school officials could not say whether, or when, Lanigan might be restored to his job as a physical education teacher at Centre Ridge.

"An innocent man was freed," Lanigan said. "I knew the truth would finally come out."

He added: "I'm looking forward to getting on the soccer field with my girls' team, which I'll do tonight. I'd love to come back to Centre Ridge and teach." He also coached the varsity boys' soccer team at Herndon High School.

His accuser said the incident happened Jan. 12, and it was reported to police Jan. 15. Fairfax detectives questioned Lanigan on Jan. 20, and he was arrested Jan. 29.

Since then, he said, "my life's been an absolute living hell. Everything I loved to do has been taken away."

But the support of family and friends, including neighbors and relatives cooking meals or donating gift cards, helped him and his family survive, Lanigan said. A Facebook page supporting Lanigan has more than 750 members.

He declined to discuss his legal costs but said they were in the "tens of thousands" of dollars.

After a day of jury selection Monday, jurors heard two days of testimony, then closing arguments Thursday morning.

To convict Lanigan of aggravated sexual battery of someone younger than 13, the jury would have had to find that the alleged groping was "committed with the intent to sexually molest, arouse or gratify any person, where the defendant intentionally touches the complaining witness's intimate parts or material clothing covering such intimate parts."

Four jurors said they thought that Lanigan should never have been arrested. "There wasn't really an investigation," al-Ghafari said. Greenspun had argued that detectives did not speak to other people in the school about the accuser or the circumstances she alleged.

"The prosecution didn't have enough evidence," juror Jasna Wilson said. "I think it was an injustice."

Jurors said they were gratified by the Lanigan supporters' emotional response in the courtroom, and some of the jurors spoke to Lanigan and his family afterward.

Some jurors said they thought that Lanigan's main accuser, who testified that she feared losing her spots on the safety patrol, the in-school video news team and the "PE Pals" gym cleanup crew, perhaps had her own troubles.

"I think she put herself into something she couldn't find her way out of," al-Ghafari said.

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