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Virginia judge considers setting aside verdict against former superintendent, postpones sentencing

LEESBURG, Va. (AP) — A judge on Thursday postponed the sentencing of a former Virginia school system superintendent convicted in connection with what prosecutors called a retaliatory firing, saying he needed more time to consider setting aside the guilty verdict altogether.

Scott Ziegler was convicted in September on a misdemeanor count of violating the state's conflict of interest laws for allegedly firing a teacher in retaliation for her testimony to a special grand jury that was investigating him and the school system he oversaw, Loudoun County Public Schools.

Ziegler had been scheduled for sentencing Thursday and faced up to a year of prison, but Circuit Court Judge Douglas Fleming postponed the sentencing after Ziegler's lawyer argued that the jury's guilty verdict was incorrect.

“It's an interesting issue,” Fleming said at the conclusion of the hearing. “My instincts tell me I need to go back” and revisit the issues that were raised.

Fleming said he'll rule at a later date whether to set aside to verdict.

The case against Ziegler has been bogged down in legal issues since he was first indicted in December 2022 on three misdemeanor charges brought by a special grand jury convened by Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares at the request of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Both Miyares and Youngkin had criticized Loudoun school system administrators in 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 cases received outsize attention because the boy who was convicted in both attacks wore a skirt in one of the attacks, assaulting a girl in the women's bathroom.

Ziegler's lawyer argued unsuccessfully at the outset that the charges should be thrown out because they were politically motivated.

Once the case against Ziegler made it to trial, proceedings were delayed for a day over arguments about exactly what prosecutors were required to prove. Lawyers on both sides said the statute in question had never been prosecuted before, so there was no template available for how to instruct a jury in its deliberations.

During arguments Thursday, Ziegler's lawyer, Erin Harrigan, said those problems remained. She said the law required proof that Ziegler knowingly violated the conflict of interest statute to be convicted, and jurors were never instructed of this. She also said prosecutors presented no evidence that Ziegler knew he was breaking the law.

“Without that evidence, there is no crime,” she said.

Prosecutors from the attorney general's office countered that Ziegler's lawyer agreed to the jury instructions, and it was too late now to object.

At trial, prosecutors said Ziegler retaliated against special education teacher Erin Brooks after she 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.

The conflict of interest conviction was the only count on which prosecutors obtained a conviction. A jury acquitted Ziegler on one count and moved to drop the charges on the other.

The only other person indicted by Miyares' special grand jury — former school system spokesman Wayde Byard — was acquitted at a separate trial last year.