Michael Gardner was found guilty of two counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of object 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.
The Arlington Circuit Court jury has not reached a verdict on an aggravated sexual battery charge relating to a third girl who visited the home for a private sleepover the night of June 16. The jury foreperson told the court prior to the three verdicts’ announcement that “there’s still a differentiation” in the panel regarding the outstanding charge.
Judge Benjamin Kendrick ordered that Gardner be immediately taken into custody, rejecting a defense request that he be allowed to remain in a room in the building with his wife Robin, a Falls Church City Council member.
After the court clerk announced the verdicts, prosecutor Nicole Wittmann turned and smiled to all six parents of the girls sitting inthe gallery behind her. None of the 10- and 11-year-old complainants were in attendance.
Wittmann later told the News-Press that she is “very pleased” by the three verdicts, and a second prosecutor, Alex Amato, flashed a victory sign with her fingers. The father of one girl said of the outcome, “It’s good.”
Defense attorney Peter Greenspun said during a lunch break, regarding Gardner, “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.”
Robin Gardner did not appear in the court room but could be heard sobbing loudly from a room next door.
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 at approximately 12:10 p.m.
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. The foreperson was then dispatched to the jury room and told to usher in the entire panel so the three verdicts could be read.
Following a lunch break, the jury will return to the court room at 1:30 to receive Kendrick’s issuance of the Allen charge – instructing jurors holding a minority view to reconsider its positions – and then to resume deliberations.
The jury had deliberated just under four and a half hours – two and a half hours yesterday afternoon and less than two hours this morning – before passing 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, be read the Allen charge –– and return to decide the fourth count. Wittmann agreed to the suggestion, while Greenspun preferred 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 suggested that his written response to the jury read, “Please continue until you reach a verdict,” which Greenspun wanted amended to read, “Please continue with your deliberations.” Kendrick considered the matter, 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.
Gardner, 48, is the husband of former Falls Church mayor and current City Council member Robin Gardner and a former chair of the City’s Democratic Committee.