A Prince William County jury yesterday acquitted a special education teacher of all charges of sexually abusing a student with Down syndrome.
David A. Perino, 39, who had been charged with attempted forcible sodomy and aggravated sexual battery, could have faced 30 years in prison had he been convicted, his attorney said.
Jurors, who deliberated for about an hour and 15 minutes, said afterward that it was not difficult reaching a verdict. They said the accuser's account of what happened in December seemed inconsistent with what they saw on a videotape from a school security camera. For instance, contrary to the woman's testimony, the teacher was wearing khakis and a sweater, not a suit.
"He had been a teacher for 16 years without a problem. That gives him credibility," said Lisa Vega, 30, a spokeswoman for a food association who was the jury's forewoman. "It was a matter of reasonable doubt. Even though some of us thought maybe something happened, it wasn't enough to convict him."
The jury's verdict marked the end of lengthy legal battle for Perino, formerly of Fredericksburg, whose first trial in May ended in a hung jury. Joined by his wife and their 9-year-old daughter, Perino stood outside the courtroom in Manassas on the verge of tears.
"I'm really happy that this is over and I can get my life back. . . . To go through this two times was torture," Perino said. Asked about his accuser, Perino said: "I don't hate anybody. I really don't. I guess I have animosity for the people who had to bring this case forward."
Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said later he believes that the woman was truthful because she had been questioned extensively by authorities and her story seemed consistent.
"But it was a hard case to prove, because the victim had a disability and it was hard for her to express herself," Ebert said. "We thought she was truthful. Otherwise we wouldn't have prosecuted the case."
The former Hylton High School student, now 21, testified that on Dec. 12, she visited Perino's class seeking his advice because she was upset over her parents' separation. She said that she sat down in Perino's chair and that he approached her and tried to sodomize her.
Perino, who did not testify at his first trial, took the stand Tuesday and gave a different account of what happened that morning, speaking calmly and addressing the prosecutor, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Claiborne T. Richardson II, by name.
Perino said he was working at his computer and turned around when he heard someone sitting at his desk. He said that he approached her and that the two talked about photographs around his desk of other students on field trips.
After a few minutes, Perino said, he told the woman three times that she needed to return to her classroom. "Then she tried to hug me, and I said, '. . . That's not appropriate,' " he said.
She left after another student came into the classroom, Perino said.
He also told the court that the student sent him hundreds of notes in the years that he was her teacher and that he tried to convince the student and her mother that it was not appropriate. The woman's mother declined to comment after the verdict.
After the woman left his classroom, she ran to another teacher's classroom and made the accusation. When the teacher brought the student to Perino and confronted him, the student "shrugged her shoulders and said she lied," Perino said.
During the trial, defense attorney Pamela Cave introduced evidence that called into question the student's credibility, citing school staff reports that called her a "drama queen," a "hijinks kind of person" and someone who "will always make a bad decision when unsupervised."
Perino, who has moved out of the Washington area, said he might consider teaching again. Cave, who said she took on Perino's case without charge, said after the verdict: "I think the student told the story because she felt rejected and the powers that be put her in a position that she couldn't take back. My heart breaks for her."