A jury has found a Loudoun County Public Schools spokesperson not guilty of a felony perjury charge amid an investigation regarding whether Virginia school district officials lied about a sexual assault to avoid controversy over a trans bathroom policy.
The jury acquitted Loudoun County Public Schools Public Information Officer Wayde Byard after deliberating for over an hour on Thursday, reported Fox 5.
"Today, I can't say I'm really happy because I expected this," Byard told the news outlet after the ruling. "Jennifer [defense attorney] made sure this happened. She assured me every step of the way. I felt confident in this. I felt confident in Judge Flemming, I felt confident the jury would reach an impartial and fair verdict."
In a statement to Fox 5, a spokesperson for Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares, who commissioned the special grand jury report, said that the office was "proud" that the judge agreed to hear the case before a jury.
"Lying under oath undermines our justice system and must be taken seriously," the spokesperson stated. "While we are disappointed with the jury's decision, we're proud of our team for uncovering the truth and providing answers to concerned Virginia parents."
In addition to Byard, the special grand jury also indicted former Loudoun County Superintendent Scott Ziegler in December.
Several witnesses testified throughout the three-day trial, including the public information officer for the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office.
Byard's wife testified, saying her husband did not communicate anything to her about the sexual assaults that occurred on May 28, 2021, at Stone Bridge High School and Oct. 6, 2021, at Broad Run High School, which generated national media attention.
Byard told the grand jury that he did not know that the incidents consisted of nonconsensual sexual contact until after the second assault in October 2021.
According to The Daily Wire, prosecutors said that Communications Director Joan Sahlgren told the grand jury that Byard had told her about the first sexual assault. However, Sahlgren backtracked on Wednesday, saying she wasn't sure.
The prosecution argued that Byard lied to the special grand jury when he claimed he was unaware of the first sexual assault allegation, reported The Associated Press. While the Stone Bridge principal initially claimed to have told Byard about it during a phone call, the administrator struggled to recall the details.
Deputy Superintendent Ashley Ellis also claimed she could not recall details about the incident. Ellis said that she only "vaguely" remembered May 28, 2021, the day that the first rape happened. The communication director's notes from that day read "anal penetration" and "police handling," as The Daily Wire reported.
Testimony showed that Byard and other school officials appeared more concerned that day with addressing an angry response from Scott Smith, the victim's father, after he showed up at the school. An email at the time showed Ellis making suggestions about a statement for parents about the upset father.
Byard's defense attorney argued that the principal only informed the spokesperson about the situation involving the angry father, not the sexual assault. Prosecutor Jason Faw questioned this claim, noting that it seemed as if the principal had told everyone else, and it seemed unlikely that he would neglect to tell Byard.
During the trial, Byard's defense attorney suggested that the spokesperson did not mean to lie to the grand jury when he said he didn't know about the rape. The attorney suggested that Byard may not have believed the victim and assumed the encounter was consensual.
However, prosecutors disagreed with this theory, as Byard had claimed he did not know about a rape allegation, according to The Daily Wire.
Prosecutors also pointed to an August 2021 email Byard sent Ziegler containing a link to an August 2021 Loudoun Now news article, which detailed Smith's sentencing for disorderly conduct after he reacted angrily to the news that his daughter had been sexually assaulted.
Byard referred to "the same family" in an email shortly after the assault, which prosecutors cited as proof that the spokesperson knew why the father was upset.
During the first sexual assault incident, the assailant reportedly wore a skirt when he assaulted a girl inside a girls' bathroom stall. The student was transferred to another high school in the district, where he abducted a girl, pulled her into an empty classroom and sexually assaulted her.
Parents expressed concerns during a June 2021 school board meeting about Policy 8040, a proposal that was later enacted that allows trans-identified students to use bathrooms that correspond with their preferred gender identity. Ziegler informed parents that "we don't have any records of assaults occurring in our restrooms."
Loudoun County Sheriff Michael Chapman asserted in a November 2022 letter to the superintendent that Ziegler knew about the first sexual assault, citing an email he sent to the school board in May 2021 about the incident.
The grand jury agreed with Chapman in its report, calling Ziegler's claims during the June meeting a "bald-faced lie." The report also called out the school board and district's "lack of cooperation" throughout the grand jury's investigation.
The perjury case against the spokesman is the first to go to trial following a special grand jury report examining the district's handling of the two sexual assault incidents.
Byard was indicted on one count of felony perjury, while Ziegler faces "one count of misdemeanor false publication," "one count of misdemeanor prohibited conduct," and "one count of misdemeanor penalizing an employee for a court appearance."