The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a former Silver Spring elementary school teacher’s argument that his conviction for having sexually abused students should be overturned because the trial judge refused to allow testimony regarding his appropriate behavior toward pupils to be introduced at trial.
In a single-line order, the justices without comment let stand a Maryland high court decision that John Vigna’s constitutional right to due process was not violated when the judge denied his request to present laudatory testimony of his interactions with students while prosecutors were allowed to introduce evidence of his bad acts.
In that ruling, the Court of Appeals said Vigna should have been allowed to introduce the favorable testimony but that the evidence against him was so overwhelming that the denial was “harmless” error and did not affect the jury’s guilty verdict.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Vigna’s appeal is just that and not a ruling on the merits of his argument. Vigna’s appeal was docketed at the high court as John Vigna v. Maryland, No. 20-992.
In Vigna’s failed bid for Supreme Court review, his attorney argued that denying a defendant’s right to introduce permitted testimony is never harmless.
“Prosecutors have been emboldened by trial courts that are increasingly permissive of negative character evidence,” Justin Eisele wrote in the unsuccessful petition for Supreme Court review. “Any limitation with respect to relevant positive character evidence … leaves the playing field incredibly imbalanced in favor of the state.”
Eisele added that juries — and not appellate courts – must decide the effect testimony has on the verdict.
“This (Supreme) Court has said it is the jury’s role ‘to resolve conflicts in the testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts,’” wrote Eisele, of the Seddiq Law Firm in Rockville.
“However, that point of view changes when there is an error before an appellate court,” he added. “In those situations, our appellate courts are comfortable with first-guessing a jury and acting as jurors themselves.”
But “this first-guessing, a justified invasion of the province of the jury to preserve convictions, will eventually lead to the jury’s irrelevance,” Eisele wrote.
The Maryland Office of Attorney General declined to respond to Vigna’s request for Supreme Court review.
Vigna was dismissed in 2016 from the teaching position he had held since 1992 amid the criminal investigation of his alleged abuse.
The evidence at Vigna’s 2017 trial included testimony from five former female students that he had touched them inappropriately while sitting on his lap at Cloverly Elementary School. These accusations were supported by evidence that Vigna’s former colleagues and supervisors had spoken about what they saw as his inappropriate contact with students while he taught third, fourth and fifth grade.
Vigna, once a very popular teacher with students and their parents, defended his actions as innocent displays of affection toward students he regarded as family. But Montgomery County Circuit Judge David A. Boynton rejected Vigna’s request to introduce testimony from colleagues, students’ parents and his 12-year-old niece regarding what they had seen as his appropriate behavior toward children.
Boynton said character testimony is admissible only when it addresses a general trait – such as peacefulness or truthfulness – and not the defendant’s specific interactions, such as behavior toward a group. Boynton allowed the witnesses to testify that they regarded Vigna as law-abiding and truthful.
The jury found Vigna guilty of four counts of sexual abuse of a minor and five counts of third degree sex offense. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison, with all but 48 years suspended.
The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction, as did the Court of Appeals last August.
“For many years, John Vigna was a popular elementary school teacher in Silver Spring, Maryland,” Judge Jonathan Biran wrote for the state’s high court.
“But, as our nation has learned all too well, it is possible for a person to be a popular teacher (or coach or trainer or member of the clergy, etc.) and, at the same time, to sexually abuse children entrusted to his care,” Biran added. “According to the evidence the jury heard in this case, Vigna sexually abused several female students while he was their teacher.”
Biran was joined in the opinion by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judges Robert N. McDonald, Joseph M. Getty and Brynja M. Booth.
Judges Michele D. Hotten and Shirley M. Watts agreed only with the court’s judgment affirming Vigna’s conviction.
The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in John Vigna v. State of Maryland, No. 55, September Term 2019.