The Ten Minute Message

Had the trial been for smoking dope, it wouldn’t have made more than a ripple.  Had it been for sticky fingers in the church till, a few might have “tsked”.  But the allegation was that a teacher sexually molested a 12 year old girl.  This sort of allegation is one that doesn’t wash away.

Sean Lanigan was a popular teacher and coach, but apparently not every student thought he was the ginchiest.  One girl hated him for his threat to punish her for bullying other students.  And she had no qualms about pulling the molestation card.  From the Washington Post :

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.

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.

Lanigan vehemently denied any touching.

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 [Elementary School] for 12 years and coached youth soccer throughout Northern Virginia for 20 years.

He was tried.  He was acquitted.  The jury took all of ten minutes to decide.

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.”

As people like to say when the “right” result happens, you can beat the rap but you can’t beat the ride.  It’s one of those cute phrases that doesn’t come close to expressing the pain, humiliation, anguish and fear that false allegations bring.  Lanigan didn’t beat the ride.

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.”

It’s no surprise that the accuser had no clue of the harm she would cause.  Adults who make false accusations never quite understand or appreciate what they are doing, the damage they are causing.  Often, they wish they never started down the road of false accusations, but by then it’s too late.  Others convince themselves that the victim of the victim deserved it, and begin to believe their own lies through some mental mechanism that protects them from realizing just how harmful their lies can be. 

But a 12 year old?  Who knows what thoughts flow through the mind of a young girl.  That’s why society puts a group of detached adults between the child-accuser and the accused.  The Salem Witch Trials should have taught us something, right?

One might suspect that the prosecutors who reviewed the allegations against a teacher and coach might consider whether their discretion, and they always have a certain amount of discretion, would be best exercised by questioning whether this was the product of a sick and dangerous teacher or an angry and malicious child.  They had the evidence before them, as the jury would later. 

After having the opportunity to carefully consider the evidence, and with the presumed capacity to appreciate the damage they would cause to a human being, the prosecutors made a decision: Go after Sean Lanigan.  Convict him.  And if not, destroy him anyway.

It only took the jury 10 minutes to tell the prosecution what it thought of the case.  Eight of those minutes were burned getting comfortable in the chairs, and another was used up shuffling papers. 

So now, Sean Lanigan is broke and broken.  His family, his reputation, his life, are devastated.  To what does he owe the ruination of a life 43 years in the making?  The judgment and discretion of a 12 year old and some prosecutors whose case was such a mutt that it couldn’t keep a jury out for more than 10 minutes.  The jury sent them a message, but they won’t listen.

Long after our disgust and head-shaking is over, and we’ve moved along to a new story of absurdity or abuse in the hands of those in whom we repose trust and power, Sean Lanigan will still be looking at the ruins of his life.  Fortunately, he is also blessed with supporters, those who would not buy into the accusation being all that was needed to burn him at the stake.  Whether this will be enough to rebuild a life has yet to be seen.  Why he should be compelled to rebuild a life has yet to be answered.

And the people who made the decision to pointlessly destroy a man and his family will move on as well, bright futures ahead of them.  They never got the message.

2 comments on “The Ten Minute Message

  1. Andrew

    From that article: “He declined to discuss his legal costs but said they were in the “tens of thousands” of dollars.”

    I’m not a lawyer, so perhaps you’ll be quick to tell me that my idea is based on ignorance. That being said, it strikes me as odd that the system will allow a person to bankrupt himself to defend against baseless charges.

    My idea: implement a system that requires the government to pay the legal fees of someone who is acquitted.

    Right now it seems like there’s absolutely no incentive for prosecutors NOT to prosecute. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

    Aside from being overly idealistic, is there any practical reason why that idea is stupid? As a non-lawyer it’s entirely possible that I’m missing something that is painfully obvious to you.

  2. SHG

    It’s a good question, and a good solution, from this side of the fence.  Why isn’t it realistic? Because the government would never leave itself so exposed.  Technically, an acquittal isn’t a verdict of innocence, but a finding that the evidence did not sufficiently prove guilt.  To put the goverment at risk for legal fees would be a disincentive to prosecute cases that weren’t easy or slam dunks.  Certainly, we, as a society, don’t want criminals to go unpresecuted merely because the evidence isn’t a slam dunk.

    But you’ve noted a critical problem with the system, in that the exposure the government will not take on its own shoulders (and therefore spread amongst society, since we all pay taxes that fund government) rests instead on the shoulders of the individual “not guilty” defendant.  It’s a terrible problem.

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