A jury late this afternoon recommended that Michael Gardner receive 22 years’ imprisonment after convicting him on two counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of object animate sexual penetration of two young girls who visited the defendant’s home for a group sleepover to celebrate his daughter’s birthday party last June 17-18.
Judge Benjamin Kendrick had declared a mistrial on the fourth count – of aggravated sexual battery relating to a third girl while she visited the home for a private sleepover the night of June 16 – after the Arlington Circuit Court jury could not reach a verdict during nearly five hours of deliberations that began yesterday.
The jury could have recommended a maximum life sentence on the sexual penetration conviction. Kendrick will consider their recommendation when he imposes the sentence on September 7. The recommendation included 12 years for the conviction on the sexual penetration charge and six years and four years for the two aggravated sexual battery charges.
“Justice has been served,” the father of one of the three girls stated following the sentencing announcement. “These are three of the bravest citizens Falls Church has ever seen, and that needs to be recognized. There’s a public safety aspect of this, given the potential other victims that civic officials and others in power have a moral responsibility to act on.
Gardner also was fined $7,500 on each of the sexual battery convictions.
Alex Amato, one of the trial’s two prosecutors, urged that Gardner be imprisoned for “a very long time,” but did not argue for a particular sentence.
“What is the value of innocence stolen?” she asked the jury of eight women and four men. “There is no way to put a price on that.”
As she spoke, two female jurors, including the foreperson, looked down and briefly held their heads in their hands. Another female juror wiped away tears.
During the girls’ visit to his home, Gardner “was the man who was supposed to protect them from the bogeyman in the middle of the night,” Amato told them. Instead, she continued, “He is this bogeyman.”
Gardner stood expressionless as the verdicts were announced. He was taken into custody and led away from the court room immediately after the pronouncements, and returned to the court room for the arguments over sentencing.
The mother of the girl against whom Gardner was convicted of committing two of the crimes, and both parents of the girl regarding whom one conviction was obtained, told the jury during the sentencing phase of the psychological and emotional tolls taken on the victims and their families.
Falls Church city council member Robin Gardner broke down during that phase several times on the witness stand while relating the effects on her daughter and son of her husband’s arrest and trial. She also spoke of Michael Gardner’s and her own loss of employment related to the case. All four Gardners testified as defense witnesses during the trial.
Defense attorney Peter Greenspun told the jury they had the heavy responsibility for “determining what is enough” of a sentence to impose on Gardner.
“Michael Gardner is now a felon. He is a sex offender, and you have the choice of a sentence to impose,” Greenspun stated.
After the court clerk announced the three convictions shortly after noon, prosecutor Nicole Wittmann turned and smiled to all six parents of the girls sitting in the gallery behind her. None of the 10- and 11-year-old complainants were in attendance.
Wittmann told the News-Press that she is “very pleased” by the three verdicts, and Amato flashed a victory sign with her fingers. The father of one girl said of the outcome, “It’s good.”
Greenspun said during a lunch break, regarding Gardner’s having been convicted, “He’s okay. He was prepared for the possibility of this happening.”
He added, “It’s tough. I’m disappointed. I thought we had a real shot.”
Eleven brown-uniformed assistant sheriffs took positions along the aisle leading from the gallery to the defense and prosecution tables, and in the front and back of the court room, prior to the verdicts’ being read.
The jury had informed Kendrick 30 minutes earlier that it had reached unanimous verdicts on three charges but not the fourth, and asked for instructions on how to proceed. Kendrick ordered them to continue deliberating, but then shifted course and called the foreperson into the court room to ask how close the jury was to deciding the fourth charge. She then was dispatched to the jury room and told to usher in the entire panel so the three verdicts could be read.
The jury had passed on this written message to Kendrick at 11:20 a.m.: “We have reached a unanimous verdict on three of the four counts. We have not reached a unanimous verdict on the fourth count. What do we do?”
Kendrick suggested to Wittmann and Greenspun that the jury be allowed to announce the three verdicts, and then deliberate over the fourth count. Wittmann agreed to the suggestion, with Greenspun preferring that the panel remain in the jury room until reaching verdicts on all four counts. Wittman replied that she would not object to the defense’s stance.
Kendrick offered both sides a possible written response that he would issue the jury, reading, “Please continue until you reach a verdict,” which Greenspun wanted amended to read, “Please continue with your deliberations.” Kendrick then wrote a message on yellow-lined paper that he handed to a bailiff for delivery to the jury.
The six-day trial began on April 23 and concluded yesterday.
Prosecutors had built their case on the girls’ testimony about the assaults in the daughter’s bedroom on the night of June 16 and in the basement in the early hours on June 18, along with DNA analysis of two of the girls’ underwear and pajamas. Defense arguments centered on what it said were several inconsistencies in the girls’ testimonies and the unreliability of the DNA evidence.
Several members of the Falls Church Police Department, including two who testified in the trial – Sgt. Ed Lancaster and Sonya Richardson, who was the lead investigator in the case – were in court as the verdicts were read.
In this week’s print edition of the News-Press, the headline to a story on the Gardner trial incorrectly states that Gardner was found guilty of assaulting three girls.