Sean Lanigan, Acquitted of Abuse, Tries to Put Life Back Together

Our founding fathers understood the tendency of governments to arrogate power to themselves at the expense of everyday citizens.  And when governments have power, they tend to use it.  We’ve learned over the past 30 years or so that what’s true of governments is no less true of those everyday citizens.

That’s part of the Sean Lanigan saga, a story that’s still going on.  Read about it here (Washington Post, 5/14/11).

Lanigan is the married father of three in Fairfax County Virginia who’s just emerged from false allegations of child sexual abuse and is trying to get his life back together with the odds stacked against him. 

Lanigan graduated from college with a degree in business and worked in the mortgage industry for a time, but found it didn’t suit him.  What did suit him – in fact it suited him to a T – was teaching.  Specifically, Lanigan is a jock and wanted to teach physical education and soccer to kids.  So he went back to school to get qualified.

“I fell in love with it,’ he said. “Seeing kids through and watching them develop, mature, grow into productive citizens. I come to work with a smile on my face every day.’

Not any more.  As passionate as he was about his job, as popular as he was with the kids at Centre Ridge Middle School in Centreville, Virginia, he did make one enemy, and that turned out to be one too many.

Lanigan’s enemy was a 12-year-old girl who hasn’t been named because she’s a minor.  She decided to exact revenge for some perceived slight on Lanigan’s part and got a friend to go in with her.  The two accused Lanigan of taking the accuser to a room near the school’s gym, laying her down on a stack of gym mats, fondling her, lying on top of her and refusing to allow her to leave for a time before finally letting her go.

That was 100% made up by the girls, but they told school officials that it had happened.  Lanigan was placed on unpaid leave and reported to the police who arrested him without talking to the girls.

Enter Nicole Christian, sexual abuse investigator for Fairfax County Sheriff’s Department.  In addition to not talking to the accuser, Christian failed to look at the room in which the event was alleged to have occurred.  If she had, she’d have noticed that it was so small that the tumbling mats couldn’t have fit inside it.  She did speak with two boys who were in the gym at the time; they said they’d seen none of the three people who supposedly were present when the claimed abuse occurred.

But it didn’t matter.  Nor did it matter that Lanigan staunchly denied everything.  His complete lack of a police record didn’t matter either.  He was charged with felony sexual abuse and turned himself in to police.  Lanigan spent four days in jail and faced 40 years if convicted.

It wasn’t even close.  At a preliminary hearing, the girls recanted key parts of their claims, but still the DA took the case to trial.  After a four-day trial, the jury took all of 47 minutes to acquit Sean Lanigan of all charges.  The linked-to article reports that jurors were outraged that Lanigan had even been charged.

“It was an easy decision, and we were all in agreement,’ juror Asman al-Ghafari said. “I just hope Mr. Lanigan can get his life back.’

“There was no evidence,’ said Jacklyn West, who wept in the jury box as the lawyers made their closing arguments…

Getting his life back has proved surprisingly hard for Sean Lanigan, an innocent man.  That’s because the school district is treating him as if he’d been found guilty.  It transferred him to a different school that’s so far away from his home that his wife had to stop working in order to care for their children during the times Sean would normally have done the job.

And of course during all the time his criminal case was pending, Lanigan wasn’t earning his usual salary.  That, plus his legal fees put him, his wife and children in a serious financial bind.

During that same time, he was forbidden by the court to see his children.

And what of his accusers?  They’re minors and nothing has been done to them in the way of punishment for their wrongful acts. 

Nicole Christian?  Immediately after Lanigan’s acquittal, another sexual abuse trial in which she was the investigating officer was stopped in progress because she admitted to “misstating” the evidence against the accused.  Has she been fired for her shoddy investigative work and possibly perjured testimony?  No.  In fact, she too has received no discipline whatsoever.

What about the District Attorney’s office?  After all, it took a case to trial that had no chance of winning, one that in the words of juror Jacklyn West had “no evidence” to support a finding of guilty.  Has anyone been disciplined for that waste of taxpayer funds, that hounding of an innocent father, husband and teacher?  If they have, it hasn’t made the news.

And there you have it, all wrapped up in a nice neat package.  We place the power to destroy lives in the hands of every woman and girl.  The merest allegation, no matter how improbable is enough to ruin a thoroughly decent, productive man for years. 

The system is one in which adults exercise not the least skepticism about claims that are at best probably false.  That brings the full weight of the police and judicial systems down on a man with limited resources to defend himself.  Articles are written, television programs aired and rumors fly.  And when the charges are dismissed or the man is acquitted, no one is punished and everyone withdraws behind the veil of “no comment.”

And just so we’re clear, Sean Lanigan was accused by two girls who are probably too young to come up with a credible story.  With a few more years or a bit more imagination, they could have put Sean Lanigan away for decades.  Of such things is The Innocence Project made and innocent lives destroyed.

Sean Lanigan is free and can do what he can to put the pieces of his life back together.  Others will not be so fortunate.  But his story teaches anew the lesson that too much power placed in anyone’s hands will eventually be misused.  That we refuse to hold to account any of the many wrongdoers in his case ensures that it will happen again and again until we apply the same standards of due process of law to allegations of abuse that we do to every other criminal matter.

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