James Ziegler doesn’t know if he can return to teaching.

Even though the 20-year Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher was acquitted on Friday of seven counts accusing him of sexually assaulting a fourth-grade student, Ziegler said what happened to him was “extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

“I don’t know if I feel comfortable working with students,” he said after he’d been cleared. “It’s the worst nightmare for a teacher or administrator.”

An Allegheny County jury on Friday deliberated for less than an hour before returning its verdict just before 1 p.m.: Not guilty of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child, sexual assault and five other related counts.

As the verdict was read, Ziegler’s loved ones sobbed in the front row of the gallery. A few moments later, he and his defense attorney, Blaine Jones, embraced.

“I’m just glad to be free,” said Ziegler, a fourth-grade teacher at Pittsburgh Faison K-5 in Homewood who had just been promoted to vice principal in December 2022 when he was charged.

Who to believe?

The accuser, a boy who is now 10, told a nurse that Ziegler had forced him to perform a sex act on Ziegler multiple times during lunchtime detention in the first few months of school that fall.

Each time it happened, the boy said they were alone in Ziegler’s classroom.

TribLive does not name victims of alleged sexual assault.

The boy couldn’t remember the dates the alleged assaults happened.

But he said he could recall what it felt like.

He admitted that, as a fourth grader, he sometimes lied.

But he was consistent in describing what he said his teacher did to him.

The jury had to decide whether to believe the boy or the man.

During closing arguments before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Bruce Beemer, Jones cast doubt on the alleged victim’s claims and pointed to the lack of evidence in the case.

While the boy said he was assaulted 10 times, Jones noted that no one else — not any of the other 79 students whose classes were in that area of the school, or any of the three other teachers — saw anything.

“How does no one see this?” Jones asked, showing the jury a picture of his client’s old classroom with a large window in the doorway.

He also questioned the investigation. At the preliminary hearing, detectives suggested six dates on which the boy was assaulted. But, Jones told the jury, two of those dates were Saturdays, and on another one, a different teacher monitored lunchtime detention.

“They’re asking you to do part of their job for them — to fill in the blanks,” Jones said. “That’s not how it works.”

He urged the jurors to use their common sense and consider the prosecutor’s burden.

“If you think, ‘what if.’ If you think, ‘maybe.’ If you think ‘perhaps,’ that’s reasonable doubt.”

His client, Jones reminded the jury, had been a teacher for two decades with no previous complaints against him.

“James Ziegler should not be a defendant in this courtroom,” Jones said. “James Ziegler should be a vice principal fulfilling a life-long dream at Faison Elementary.”

Changing his story

But during his closing argument, Assistant District Attorney Tom Kelly told the jury that investigators had narrowed the dates for the alleged assaults to 16 different days that fall. Those were the dates when the boy got detention. Of those, six of them, Kelly said, were dates when the student would have been at lunch detention alone.

The prosecutor dismissed Ziegler’s testimony on Thursday during which he denied the allegations against him.

Ziegler at first told the jury that he had the alleged victim in lunch detention by himself only once, Kelly said, but when confronted with evidence, changed his story.

“That’s what this comes down to — whether you believe [the victim.]”

The boy’s testimony, Kelly told the jury, included graphic description of what happened.

“Those are details. Those are things that ring true,” Kelly said. “Those are the details that matter.”

The alleged victim, he continued, testified exactly as expected for a 10-year-old boy.

“Of course he didn’t remember dates,” Kelly said. “He wasn’t looking at the clock. He wasn’t looking out the door to see if there were other teachers around.

“‘It felt like every day,’” Kelly said, quoting the boy.

District reviews options

First Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Spangler said that the prosecution reviewed the case and approved the charges because they believed there was more than sufficient evidence to support them.

“In our adversarial system the defense challenged that evidence,” she said. “The case was presented to a fact finder, in this case a jury, who rendered a verdict. We respect the jury’s verdict.”

Afterward, Ziegler said he put a lot of effort into working with his students, but now he’s not sure if he wants to return.

Whether he’s permitted to return to Pittsburgh Public Schools has not yet been decided.

District Solicitor Ira Weiss said that Ziegler will remain on unpaid leave while the administration reviews its next steps — including whether to try to fire him.

“That option is very much possible,” Weiss said. “The level of proof required in criminal matters is not the same in employment matters. These are serious allegations.”

According to the state Department of Education, Ziegler’s teaching certification is listed as invalid. Weiss said that it is up to the state agency to address any reinstatement.

Not adding up

Jones and Ziegler pointed not only to the jury’s verdict as exoneration, but also to a letter from the county’s Office of Children, Youth and Families that cleared him in its investigation of the allegations.

That the jury only deliberated for 45 minutes, Jones believes, shows the charges should never have been filed in the first place.

“None of it added up,” Jones said. “I never for a second thought this man was anything but innocent.”

He called the verdict a resounding win.

Since being placed on leave, Jones said, Ziegler has struggled to make ends meet, sometimes having to decide if he should work as a ride-share driver or prep for his trial.

“He did both,” his attorney said.

Paula Reed Ward is a TribLive reporter covering federal and Allegheny County courts. She joined the Trib in 2019 after spending nearly 17 years at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team. She is the author of “Death by Cyanide.” She can be reached at pward@triblive.com.