Ex-Cloverly Elementary teacher serving 48-year prison sentence
Maryland’s top court this week affirmed the conviction of a former elementary school teacher who was convicted of sexually abusing children during class.
In September, former Cloverly Elementary School teacher John Vigna appealed his sentence of 48 years for assaulting students, claiming he was not allowed to provide himself an adequate defense at trial.
A jury in 2017 found Vigna guilty of sexually abusing four female students over the course of 15 years.
Court records say Vigna would have students sit on his lap while the class watched videos or did independent work. Vigna would then touch the students inappropriately, documents say.
Vigna, who had worked for MCPS since 1992, represented himself during his trial. The judge did not allow witnesses to testify that they thought he interacted appropriately with children.
The witnesses included fellow teachers, a former Cloverly principal and parents, according to court documents.
Vigna was “very popular with students and other teachers,” the Court of Appeals wrote in its opinion, which said the witnesses should have been able to testify, but the absence of their testimony was “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“Vigna’s students adored his affectionate teaching style, and many of them maintained close relationships with Vigna after they left his classroom,” the opinion said.
Vigna said during his trial that he often hugged, kissed and consoled his students because he was raised in a large Italian family that “emphasized physical affection.” He denied ever having inappropriate interactions with students and attributed any conduct that a student could have interpreted as sexual to be the result of an accident.
During Vigna’s trial, the judge allowed the witnesses to testify that Vigna was “law-abiding,” which they often did by discussing his interactions with children. But the trial judge decided that testimony directly about his interactions with students was irrelevant, particularly because well-regarded and high-profile people have historically been found to have sexually assaulted children.
The court “observed that sexual predators often gain special access to children for the very reason that they are able to appear ‘appropriate’ (and trustworthy, moral, etc.) in their interactions with children,” the opinion said.
“To admit a community member’s opinion about a defendant’s reputation for propriety with children would fail to consider that sex offenders may groom not just the child but also their family or the wider community as a necessary prerequisite to gaining access to child victims.”
In August 2019, the Maryland Court of Appeals denied Vigna’s request for a new trial, also saying his positive reputation has no significance in his criminal case.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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