The Virginia Supreme Court has overturned a sexual-assault conviction against a man who was a prominent political leader in Falls Church, saying a lower court wrongly excluded character evidence in his defense.
Michael Gardner, the former head of the Falls Church Democratic Committee, was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2012 after a jury found him guilty of molesting two young girls at a slumber party the previous year.
The trial pitted Gardner, who denied the allegations, against the testimony of the 10- and 11-year-old girls. Gardner had no record of abuse, and the defense submitted 60 letters from family members, friends and business associates that detailed his character and his work in the Falls Church community. A lawyer and tax-software executive as well as a local civic activist, he is the husband of former Falls Church mayor Robin Gardner, who was serving on the City Council at the time of his trial and testified in her spouse’s defense.
Prosecutors objected, however, when defense attorney Peter Greenspun attempted to question two character witnesses about Gardner’s reputation as a good caretaker of children. An Arlington County Circuit Court judge and the state Court of Appeals both erred in siding with prosecutors and barring that testimony, which had been deemed beyond what is allowed in character testimony, the Supreme Court ruled.
In appealing the conviction, Greenspun said there were inconsistencies in the girls’ testimonies. He also argued that prosecutors failed to thoroughly investigate sperm, from one of the girls’ fathers, that was found on her pajamas.
“A cry for help from one distressed girl has been hijacked, and that has cast us into darkness,” Gardner said at the trial.
Prosecutors said the semen might have seeped into the pajamas during the wash. They presented evidence that Gardner’s DNA was found on one girl’s underwear and another’s pajamas.
Throughout, prosecutors argued that Gardner had exploited his prestige in the community to commit heinous acts.
Loudoun County Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Nicole Wittmann was “very disappointed, especially for the children who were involved in that case,” a spokeswoman for her office said. Wittmann plans to seek a new trial date “as soon as possible.” The case was handled by Loudoun’s office because Arlington’s chief prosecutor knows the Gardners, presenting a potential conflict of interest.
“We have always known that Michael’s trial had many errors,” the Gardner family said in a statement.
“We are very pleased that the Supreme Court of Virginia came to the same conclusion. This has been a very difficult three years and we look forward to seeing Michael out of prison and in our home.”
Greenspun said that Gardner is prepared to face the molestation charges in a new trial and added that he will ask for his client to be released on bond.