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Va. justices toss ex-Dem official's convictions

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Local,Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (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.

The justices sent the case back to the circuit court. Arlington County Commonwealth's Attorney Theo Stamos said in a telephone interview that she has spoken to the special prosecutor who handled Gardner's case, and that there will be a retrial.

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, 50, was convicted of molesting two girls who attended a slumber party for this 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.

Gardner had been chairman of the Democratic committee in Falls Church and his wife is a former mayor. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison for sexual battery.

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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