It’s no secret that if there’s one type of case that a defense attorney really fears, it’s the one involving allegations of sexual assault against a child. They’re morally repugnant crimes, which can be alleged with surprising ease and little evidence to back them, making them nightmares to defend. Add to that the stigma that is now attached, the media scrutiny, the complete disregard for the presumption of innocence and the witch hunt under way and you have the perfect recipe for sleepless nights and ruined lives.
This week, the Washington Post published a lengthy, powerful article on the aftermath of such a (false) allegation against an elementary school teacher in Fairfax, VA.
Sean Lanigan’s nightmare began in January 2010, when the principal at Centre Ridge Elementary School pulled him out of the physical education class he was teaching and quietly walked him into an interrogation with two Fairfax County police detectives.
He had no warning that a 12-year-old girl at the Centreville school had accused him of groping and molesting her in the gym.
The girl, angry at Lanigan about something else entirely, had made the whole thing up. But her accusations launched a soul-sapping rollercoaster ride that still hasn’t ended.
Lanigan’s story captures all the problems with child sexual abuse cases: an overenthusiastic willingness to believe the accuser, blinders that inhibit careful investigation, witnesses getting locked into stories they can’t get out of, job loss, media lynching and stubborn prosecutors digging their heels in, unable to see beyond the blind faith in their dubious complainants:
Lanigan spent months in anxious exile, forced from his school, his players, his neighbors and his friends, pondering the possibility of up to 40 years in a state penitentiary.That soon turned to relief. A jury found him not guilty after just 47 minutes of deliberation — virtually unheard of in a child sex abuse case. Jurors were outraged by the lack of evidence, with one weeping in sympathy during closing arguments.
But still the nightmare continues, as Lanigan struggles to earn back his reputation and career.
Within two weeks of the accuser’s report — without ever speaking to the girl — Fairfax detectives arrested Lanigan and charged him with aggravated sexual battery and abduction.
And then came the collateral consequences:
Police issued a press release with Lanigan’s booking photo and home address, and the school district sent home a letter about his arrest. TV trucks descended on the school and his neighborhood, and Lanigan’s reputation took a lasting beating. Even today, the first thing that comes up in a Google search of Sean Lanigan is a Web site called “Bad Bad Teacher.”
In this age of everything being stored forever, it is extremely disappointing that those who publish these sensationalist stories to grab headlines don’t have the ethical integrity to tie up loose ends and update their earlier proclamations when people are found not guilty. The internet garbage dump is littered with half-finished pronouncements of people’s arrests, floating about in the cyber wilderness, available to anyone and everyone for eternity. We see headlines every single day, on every news website: “Man arrested for robbery; Man accused of molesting child; Suspect arraigned in murder”.
The crime itself isn’t news – it’s the fact of arrest and allegation – a giant scarlet blob that’s shot out with the precision of a paintball gun, with no sense of duty to clean up the mess once the shot has been fired.
When do we ever see news organizations edit their original articles to reflect the outcome of the case. “Man arrested for raping 3 year old” never has an update attached to it stating “Man was ultimately acquitted, see here for details”. When do police departments put out press releases acknowledging that they arrested an innocent individual, one that was ultimately acquitted?
Why are we so quick to believe accusations and sully reputations based solely on them? Why do we permit shoddy police investigations that seem to have no regard for the truth? Think of the children, sure, but what about the rest of us?
Once in the equipment room, the girls decided, Lanigan laid the accuser on a stack of blue tumbling mats, began massaging her shoulders, then laid on top of her and told her he would “treat her like a queen,” while the other girl stood in the doorway. The accuser said that she tried to get up, but that Lanigan pushed her down and asked where she was going. The accuser said she had patrol duty, and Lanigan then allowed her to leave.
Several witnesses said the tumbling mats couldn’t even fit in the equipment room, but there is no indication in reports or trial testimony that Fairfax police ever checked.
Shoot first, there is no later.