Virginia judge sets aside guilty verdict against former school superintendent

WTOP's Neal Augenstein breaks down the verdicts about ex-Loudoun County Superintendent Scott Ziegler/ (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

LEESBURG, Va. (AP) — A judge on Wednesday set aside a guilty verdict against a former Virginia school system superintendent who was convicted of a retaliatory firing of a teacher who reported that an elementary school student inappropriately touched her.

The judge ordered a new trial for ex-Loudoun County Superintendent Scott Ziegler, who was convicted last year on a misdemeanor count of violating the state’s conflict of interest laws for allegedly firing the teacher in retaliation for her testimony to a special grand jury that was investigating him.

Judge Douglas Fleming’s ruling eliminates the only conviction obtained by Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares in a high-profile investigation of the Loudoun County school system.

Both Miyares and Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin had criticized Loudoun school system administrators during their successful 2021 campaigns for ignoring parent concerns about the handling of transgender students, as well as the school system’s mishandling of a student who sexually assaulted classmates at two different high schools that year.

The case received outsize attention because the boy who was convicted in both attacks wore a skirt in one of them, assaulting a girl in the women’s bathroom.

Miyares convened a special grand jury at Youngkin’s request to investigate the school system. The grand jury indicted Ziegler and then-school system spokesman Wayde Byard. A jury last year acquitted Byard of perjury during the investigation.

Ziegler was convicted only on the misdemeanor count of violating the state’s conflict of interest laws. That charge revolved around accusations made by special education teacher Erin Brooks.

Brooks testified to the grand jury and told school system critics about her difficulties dealing with a student who was touching her inappropriately. Prosecutors said Ziegler’s efforts to ensure Brooks’ teaching contract was not renewed amounted to retaliation for her speaking out on a matter of public interest. Such retaliation is illegal under the conflict of interest statute.

Ziegler argued at trial that the teacher’s dismissal was unrelated to her speaking out.

Ziegler’s lawyers also argued that the prosecution was politically motivated and that Miyares’ office dug up a law that had never been used before in a prosecution in what the lawyers called a desperate attempt to obtain a conviction.

That lack of precedent contributed to Fleming’s decision to set aside the verdict.

Ziegler lawyer Erin Harrigan argued that the law required proof that Ziegler knowingly violated the conflict of interest statute to be convicted, and that jurors were never instructed of this. Because the law had not been used in a prosecution before, neither side had any model jury instructions that could be used.

Fleming, in his written opinion Wednesday, said there was “ample evidence to support a jury’s conclusion that the Defendant knowingly retaliated against Erin Brooks” but said the faulty jury instructions rendered the conviction illegitimate.

Prosecutors had insisted that defense attorneys should have objected to the jury instructions earlier, but Fleming rejected that argument.

In a statement, Miyares spokesperson Victoria LaCivita said the dismissal of the verdict “is based on a technicality. … We look forward to once again presenting our case in court.”

A March 28 hearing has been scheduled to set a new trial date.

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