The shameful case of Sean Lanigan and the presumption-of-guilt culture
I have written before about the dangers of our presumption-of-guilt culture, in which accusations and indictments are believed by people to be verdicts. I warned about this almost two years ago, when the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was indicted — and before his conviction was overturned due to corrupt and dishonest misconduct by federal prosecutors.
Now, thanks to a front-page story in Sunday’s Washington Post, we know perhaps the most horrible example of the consequences of this assumption of guilt not only before trial but continuing beyond acquittal: the shameful case of Sean Lanigan.
Lanigan was a Fairfax County physical-education teacher falsely accused by a 12-year-old girl of being a child molester. The accuser got her girlfriend to corroborate her charge. Then, at a preliminary hearing preceding an indictment, they both admitted to lying about a — if not the — key element of the charge.
But proving once again there is a God of Justice in heaven, the jury in the case acquitted Lanigan in 47 minutes — according to the Post, “virtually unheard of in a child sex-abuse case.” The jurors, the Post wrote, were “outraged at the lack of evidence, with one weeping in sympathy [with Lanigan] during closing arguments.”
Yet the Fairfax County school district has not only refused to pay all of Lanigan’s legal fees, it continues to treat him as if he were guilty. District officials continue an internal reprimand process against Lanigan, issuing him two pages of “guidelines and expectations” while he is on part-time assignment in a new school, including the instruction: “Do not touch” any students “as a means of greeting, playing with, showing approval of, or otherwise interacting with them.”
The Post reported that all of the key people centrally responsible for this moral outrage against Lanigan “declined to comment” for the story.
I wish the Post had published its photographs with the word “shame” as a common caption. At the very least, therefore, I want to nominate certain individuals by name into what should be called the “Fairfax County Law Enforcement System Hall of Shame”:
- First and foremost, Nicole Christian, the lead detective whose flawed and biased investigation was centrally responsible for the false charges being filed against Lanigan. The Post reported that Fairfax prosecutors subsequently dismissed another of Christian’s child-abuse cases in the middle of a trial because she acknowledged misstating the facts in her sworn testimony. Has she been fired? Why not? Has she been prosecuted for perjury in the subsequent case? Why not?
- Fairfax Commonwealth Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, who pressed the case and obtained an indictment even after the two girls recanted key prior testimony — and couldn’t even get a jury to deliberate for more than 47 minutes before acquittal. Why isn’t Morrogh embarrassed and publicly apologizing to Lanigan? Why hasn’t he resigned?
- The Fairfax County Police Department, which chose to put out a press release and mug photo of Lanigan — and now declines to comment to the Post, much less apologize to Lanigan.
- The head of the Fairfax County school district — who is he? His name is never mentioned in the Post story. He/she or one of his/her underlings continues to hound Lanigan, treating him as if he’d been found guilty, and refuses to pay all his legal fees and take responsibility for this gross injustice.
- And regarding the two minors who caused this tragedy more than anyone else: I respect the Post’s policy not to name them because they are minors. But I wonder whether they would learn a much more profound lesson if their parents forced them to take public responsibility — and issue a public apology. At the very least, why did the parents “decline to comment” to the Post? Why didn’t they apologize to Lanigan publicly?
But even if Lanigan received these apologies, he would have the right to ask the same question as the famous one posed by Raymond Donovan, the Labor secretary for President Reagan.
Donovan was hounded out of Washington by three independent counsel investigations and then finally acquitted of all charges in a phony, politicized criminal case brought by the Bronx, N.Y., Democratic prosecutor. After his acquittal, the media congratulated Donovan. He answered, in words sadly applicable to Lanigan’s case:
“Where do I go to get my good name back?”
Lanny Davis is the principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in strategic crisis management and is a partner with Josh Block in the strategic communications and public affairs company Davis-Block. He served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). He can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@LannyDavis).