Fairfax teacher found not guilty of molesting student

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010

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."

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