A jury in Virginia has awarded $5m to a teacher accused of sexual abuse after the charges were dismissed and law enforcement was found liable for damages.
Kimberly Winters was arrested in 2018 after a former student at Park View High School, where she’d taught English for eight years, told authorities he’d had a sexual relationship with her while underage. Charges were dismissed within months after a lawyer for Ms Winters presented Loudoun County prosecutors with a lack of evidence. Thomas K Plofchan alleged that, not only had his client never engaged in sexual activity with the accuser, the allegations had also never been properly investigated.
Ms Winters and her legal team subsequently sued Loudoun County Sheriff Michael Chapman and Deputy Peter Roque, and a jury took just over two hours this month to determine that the latter had acted maliciously.
During a five-day trial, Mr Roque admitted that he had not seen evidence of calls and texts between the former student and Ms Winters despite claims of their existence by the accuser and his mother; he did not interview key neighbours, friends and witnesses; and he had not checked alibis for the teacher.
Ms Winters’ first inkling of the charges came when officers in riot gear burst into her bedroom and arrested her in 2018, she told The Washington Post.
“After Roque obtained the warrant for her arrest, Winters was arrested, stripped searched, forbidden from being in contact with minors,” her lawyers wrote in a release following the jury decision. “More importantly, her mugshot and the charges were plastered all over the media, to include print and television.
“Winters testified that Roque’s maliciously indifferent action of seeking an arrest without investigation and his ignoring of inconsistencies, illegally disregarded her rights and ruined her life.”
Ms Winters, who had been fired by the school district, said the allegations had forced her to move, prevented her from getting work and impacted her health, causing her to develop a tremor and anxiety.
“It became so humiliating, I literally couldn’t go out of my house,” she told the Post. “This has been going on for four years. The repeated trauma of having to relive this created this tremor. My entire body shakes.”
She said she hoped to just “start to rebuild,” adding that the settlement “definitely isn’t a cure-all. The information [about the arrest] is still out there.”
The jury award included $350,000 for punitive damages in the malicious prosecution case brought by Ms Winters.
“The jury’s verdict vindicates Kim Winters, a wrongfully accused teacher,” Mr Plofchan said in a release. “More importantly, it validates the citizens’ willingness to hold law enforcement accountable. Law enforcement yields great power. They also have great responsibility. Reckless charges can ruin reputations and destroy lives. This is a step in giving Kim Winters her life back.”