By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010; B01
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 him 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 them in the school gym, carried the girl 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 own 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. The main accuser alleged that Lanigan briefly touched her breast and buttock during the incident. But she also acknowledged having a grudge against Lanigan for threatening to remove her from bus patrol because of bullying and profanity on the bus.
Jurors said the prosecution had no case, and that after reading their legal instructions, it took the seven women and five men about 10 minutes of deliberation 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 said his arrest, suspension without pay and the 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.
Jurors said the accuser "had no idea of the consequences" of saying that Lanigan had molested her, West said. "This poor man. That's why I cried."
Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh said he respected the jury's verdict but was unapologetic about prosecuting Lanigan. "We believed, and believe, that this young woman was telling the truth," Morrogh said. He said the accuser was "a very courageous person" for telling her story, even as teachers and fellow students rallied for Lanigan in her school.
Fairfax County school officials could not say whether, or when, Lanigan might return 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.
Jurors heard two days of testimony, then closing arguments Thursday morning. The most sensational allegation in the case, a Fairfax police news release stating that Lanigan had laid on the girl in the equipment room, was not mentioned in the trial, and was recanted by the accuser in a March preliminary hearing.
The girl testified that she and her friend were standing in the gym near the end of the school day when Lanigan picked her up by the hips and slung her over his shoulder, touching her breast in the process. The girl said Lanigan carried her to the equipment room and laid her on the tumbling mats, touching her buttock, then massaged her shoulders. She said he told her, "I'm going to treat you like a queen."
Lanigan testified that he thought he picked her up, swung her around briefly and put her back down. He said he never carried her to the equipment room and there were no mats there. The accuser's friend said she saw no inappropriate touching.
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," according to Virginia law.
Four jurors said they thought that Lanigan should never have been arrested. "There wasn't really an investigation," al-Ghafari said.
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, might have had her own troubles.
"I think she put herself into something she couldn't find her way out of," al-Ghafari said.