Lanigan Investigator Ignored Evidence of Innocence

I wrote recently about the case of Sean Lanigan, the middle-school coach and teacher falsely accused of child sexual abuse by a 12-year-old girl at his school in Virginia.  I pointed out that we place the power to destroy lives in the hands of individuals including young girls.  That’s wrong in itself.

What’s also wrong is the girl’s intentional, malicious act of targeting a decent man.  It’s apparent from messages on her Facebook page that, once she’d leveled her accusations at Lanigan and the wheels of what’s sometimes called justice went into motion, she regretted what she’d done.  By then of course it was too late; the whole process was out of her hands and in that of adults.

However wrong the girl was in falsely accusing Lanigan, and she surely was, it was adults who should have known better and acted differently that did the most damage to Sean Lanigan.  What should have happened is that, once the girl and her partner in crime recanted their claims, criminal charges should have been dropped and Lanigan reinstated in his job.

If the adults involved had acted responsibly, that’s what would have happened, but they didn’t.  And chief among the “they” who didn’t was Fairfax County Sheriff’s Department investigator Nicole Christian.

Here’s Tom Jackman’s blog following up on his original investigative report (Washington Post, 5/16/11). 

Jackman’s sketch of Nicole Christian is of a woman whose job it is to investigate child sexual abuse.  Judging from her conduct of the Sean Lanigan case, she is plainly unqualified to do that job and should be at least replaced and preferably fired.  Although her fellow officers seem to respect her work, Jackman describes a woman who harbors some frankly false views about child abuse, intimidates witnesses, displays a disturbing willingness to ignore evidence pointing to innocence and possibly lies under oath.

It seems that Christian and Detective Rich Mullins have a PowerPoint presentation on child sexual abuse on the internet.  Part of that presentation is the exhortation “believe a child who tells you about a sexual assault.”  

That’s bad police work, bad psychology and bad law.  It was the approach taken by police, prosecutors and others back in the 80s and 90s and its consequences were dire.  The McMartin PreSchool and the Fells Acres Day Care cases are classic examples in which believing the children was the worst possible thing to have done.  Believing the children sent innocent people to prison and wasted millions in taxpayer dollars.

More to the point, believing children about sexual abuse is an open invitation to adults who would plant false ideas in their minds confident that the children will repeat them to the detriment of whoever the target might be.  It’s also an open invitation to older children like the one who accused Lanigan to irreparably damage the reputation of any man they choose.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying children should be disbelieved.  Of course, all too often they’re telling the truth about abuse.  What investigators should do is follow protocols established by psychologists and law enforcement officials for the proper questioning of child witnesses. 

They should also be willing to exercise some of their adult skepticism about cases that smell fishy.

Lanigan’s, it turns out, was one of those from the start.  Christian and Mullins’ own PowerPoint presentation “list[s] numerous physical and behavioral indicators that a child has been sexually assaulted, and the accuser in Lanigan”s case appeared to have few or none of them.”

So according to Christian’s own ideas about victims of child sexual abuse, the girl who accused Lanigan probably wasn’t one, but that put the investigator in an obvious bind.  On one hand she could have given precedence to those factors, few if any of which applied to Lanigan’s accuser; on the other she had her mantra “believe the child.”  She couldn’t do both, so she did the latter.    

A police investigator who opts for faith over facts is a bad investigator.  One who opts for a faith that’s proven time and again its ability to imprison innocent people is far worse.

And when it came to faith, Nicole Christian was no tepid believer.  On the contrary she drank the Kool-Aid avidly.  In practical terms, her willingness to believe the child went further than just doing that; she went on to believe that anyone who offered contradictory evidence, regardless of how believable, was part of a conspiracy to obstruct justice.

But in this case the detectives became convinced not only of Lanigan”s guilt, but also that people were conspiring with him to cover it up.

True believer that she seems to be, Nicole Christian believed that every bit as much as she did Sean Lanigan’s guilt.  She went so far as to threaten with prosecution anyone who brought her evidence that didn’t agree with her view of Sean Lanigan as an abuser.

But when others – staff, parents – tried to tell Christian anything she didn”t want to hear, she threatened them with prosecution for obstruction of justice, the staff members and parents said. School district investigator Steve Kerr”s investigative report, written after Lanigan”s acquittal, confirmed those claims, noting that: “Because of the jury”s decision, the detective [Christian] advised that she will not pursue criminal charges against [staff member] or [staff member].’

In addition, the accuser”s close friend and corroborating witness to the incident quickly tried to retract her story, her mother said, but Christian wasn”t hearing it. In a letter to the mother of the witness from assistant superintendent Kevin North after the trial, North confirmed that “you requested a re-interview with your daughter, which the detective declined.’

Face it.  It’s the inevitable result of valuing belief over empirical evidence.  When your complaining witness exhibits few or none of the signs of abuse, when her partner recants, when she herself recants in part, when the girl herself wrote on Facebook that the prank had gone too far, it’s time for any sensible officer to question the guilt of the accused.

But like true believers everywhere, Nicole Christian didn’t do that.

It gets even more sinister from there.

But when Christian and assistant Fairfax prosecutor Katie Pavluchuk approached the witness and her mother outside Lanigan”s preliminary hearing in March 2010, the girl and her mother refused to speak with them. The girl then joined the accuser in recanting the claim that Lanigan had lain on top of the accuser.

Not long after that hallway encounter, Fairfax County launched a Child Protective Services investigation into the witness”s mother — the reasons for which have not been made public for alleged inappropriate behavior by her boyfriend.. The witness”s mother was eventually cleared of any allegations of misbehavior, but also had to undergo the pressure of being investigated. The girl and her mother have since moved from the area.

Did Nicole Christian report the mother to CPS?  We’ll probably never know, but the coincidence of the two events is remarkable to say the least.

Then of course there’s the fact that, in another case altogether, the prosecution of the defendant had to be abandoned altogether because Nicole Christian admitted that she had “misstated” certain facts in her report.

And as I wrote previously, for her numerous violations of sound police procedure and possibly law, Nicole Christian has so far received no form of discipline.  That pretty much green-lights any future witch trial she may see fit to conduct.

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