Conviction overturned for Michael Gardner, Democratic Party official from Falls Church accused of molesting children

(WJLA/AP) - The Virginia Supreme Court tossed out a former Democratic Party official's child molestation convictions Thursday, ruling that the trial court improperly limited testimony by two character witnesses.

Michael Armin Gardner was convicted of molesting two girls, age 9 and 11, who attended a slumber party for his daughter's 10th birthday.

The jury was unable to reach a verdict on a charge that Gardner molested another child the previous night when his daughter called him into her room to comfort her during a thunderstorm. A mistrial was declared on that count.

During the 2012 trial, the prosecution said it had DNA evidence linking him to acts against the two girls, though Gardner maintained he never touched them.

The 50-year-old former chairman of the Democratic committee in Falls Church was sentenced to 22 years in prison in May of 2012.

In a 6-1 decision, the justices said an Arlington County Circuit Court judge erred in barring the witnesses from testifying about whether Michael Armin Gardner had a reputation as a good caretaker of children. The witnesses' testimony was limited to Gardner's general reputation as an honest and law-abiding citizen.

"We have repeatedly stated that a defendant is not limited solely to reputation evidence regarding truthfulness, but may offer evidence to prove good character for any trait relevant in the case," Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn wrote in the majority opinion. Justice Elizabeth McClanahan dissented.

Gardner's wife, Robin, is a former mayor and councilmember for the City of Falls Church. She has maintained her husband's innocence throughout the ordeal.

Gardner's attorney, Peter Greenspun, did not immediately return a telephone message.

In his appeal, Gardner also claimed the judge erred in conducting a single trial for alleged offenses that occurred on consecutive nights. The justices' ruling on the character testimony meant they did not have to rule on that issue. Justice Donald Lemons wrote in brief concurring opinion that the state will have the burden of proving that a single trial is appropriate if the case is retried.

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