Wed, 06 Dec 2023

LEESBURG, Va. (CN) - Less than three days until trial, an attorney for a former school superintendent tried but failed Thursday to convince a judge that the case against her client should be tossed because of prosecutorial misconduct by the Virginia Attorney General's office.

In a last-ditch effort to dismiss misdemeanor charges against Scott Ziegler, Erin Harrigan of the firm Gentry Locke accused prosecutors of opining about testimony and cherry-picking evidence during a grand jury probe of the system's handling of two campus rapes. At one point, a witness didn't know an answer. The prosecutor responded, "I do know," according to Harrigan.

A prosecutor countered that Harrigan was misrepresenting the law.

The misconduct charge "is a last-ditch claim often brought upon the realization that the law and facts are not on one's side," wrote Theophani Stamos, special counsel to Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares in court filings. The timing of Harrigan's motion "is a thinly veiled device by which to generate favorable trial publicity for the defendant," Stamos added.

Prosecutors were not prohibited from offering opinions to witnesses, presenting evidence and using the techniques of cross-examination that Harrigan mentioned. Stamos asked the judge to sanction the defense attorney because she named a juvenile offender in a court filings.

Judge Douglas Fleming rejected motions from both sides. Ruling from the bench, he said the role of the grand jury is to determine whether there was probable cause to indict Ziegler. That is what they did.

Formerly superintendent of a fast-growing Virginia suburb near Washington, Ziegler got caught up in controversy in 2021 after a high school student accused of rape was moved to another school and committed a second assault.

This infuriated parents and Ziegler lost his job. The story made national headlines. Governor Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order asserting, "Loudoun County School Board and school administrators withheld key details and knowingly lied to parents about the sexual assaults."

Youngkin asked the attorney general to coordinate investigative and prosecutorial efforts to "hold accountable any individuals who have violated existing law or violated the rights of victims of crime."

A special grand jury was empaneled in April 2022, and Stamos has led the prosecution.

Ziegler faces three misdemeanor charges - false publication, prohibited conduct penalizing an employee - a teacher - for a court appearance.

The last two charges are specific to allegations not directly linked to the rape. A trial for those charges is scheduled for Sept. 25-26. A trial for the third charge is scheduled next year.  

Earlier this year, another school administrator, Wayde Byard, was acquitted on a perjury charge in connection with the probe.

Source: Courthouse News Service

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