In an unexpected development Tuesday, Judge Esther Wiggins opened the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District courtroom in the Falls Church City Hall to the public and the media in the preliminary hearing on the felony sexual abuse charges brought against Falls Church City resident and community activist Michael Gardner.
The result was the public and widely-reported disclosure of intimate details provided by the three girls, ages 9 and 10, of the abuses allegedly perpetrated by Gardner. While the names of the alleged victims were not formally presented as part of the court proceeding, side conversations inside the courtroom, readily overheard by reporters, revealed them.
Descriptions provided by the girls of the allegations were prompted by questions both from prosecuting attorney Nicole Wittman, Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney for the Loudoun County District Court and Gardner’s attorney Peter Greenspun.
At the conclusion, Judge Wiggins said that sufficient “probable cause” existed for remanding the matter to a Grand Jury and a follow-on court date in the Arlington Circuit Court next week, on July 21 at 9:30 a.m.
Gardner is charged with committing two felony acts of aggravated sexual battery and one act of object sexual penetration. He has pleaded not guilty.
Following his arrest on June 22, Gardner retained former Falls Church Mayor Brian O’Connor as his attorney, replacing him last week with Greenspun, a high-powered and highly-acclaimed Northern Virginia attorney who, among other things, defended the sniper John Allen Muhamad in the early 2000s. He is currently ranked No. 16 among Washingtonian magazine’s Top 50 Lawyers in the D.C. Metro area, and the highest-ranking in Virginia.
On his website, Greenspun promises “zealous representation to people facing their darkest hour against the authority of the government.”
At Tuesday’s heading, after initially closing the courtroom to all but the victims, their parents, social workers, Gardner’s wife, Falls Church City Council member Robin Gardner, and legal counsel, Judge Wiggins said she consulted with the victims and their families, and decided to open the court to reporters and the public.
Seated next to their parents, each child was brought to the witness stand, asked to identify Gardner in the courtroom, and to describe the events that took place on the nights they claim they were assaulted.
Two girls said they were sleeping at the Gardner household in a basement on June 18 when Gardner repeatedly fondled them. A third girl, who slept over in Gardner’s daughter’s room on June 16, said Gardner repeatedly touched her beneath her clothing. She claimed that he whispered to her, asking if it “felt good.”
After Wiggins ruled that Gardner’s case would move ahead, Greenspun asked if Gardner could be permitted to see his own twin children with adult supervision. Wiggins denied the request. Greenspun again requested that Gardner be able to see his children with adult supervision in public areas, but again Wiggins denied the request.
No public statements were made by either side following the hearing. Yesterday, Gardner’s first attorney, former Falls Church Mayor Brian O’Connor told the News-Press that he remains convinced of Gardner’s innocence. Gardner remains free on bond.
Robin Gardner came in for the hearing from a location in New Jersey where she is staying with her children. She was not present at last night’s Falls Church City Council meeting, held in the same chamber as today’s hearing.
Judge Wiggins is not without some controversy of her own. A “Petition to the Virginia Legislature for the Removal of 17th Judicial District Court Judge Esther Lyles Wiggins” is currently online, and signed so far by 194 persons, many of whom include comments justifying their signatures. The petition alleges that Judge Wiggins “has proven inside and outside the courtroom to not have judiciary character and has not upheld the canons of judicial conduct.” It alleges bias and prejudice, failure to permit important evidence, abuse of power and failure to operate in an impartial manner.