Tuesday morning in little Bellefonte, Pa., 10 rural miles from Penn State University, 220 locals citizens reported to the downtown courthouse for jury duty. By the end the week, there’s hope 12 of them (and alternates) will be seated to decide Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Gerald A. Sandusky.
Jury selection marks the start of the biggest trial in Centre County history and the first of what is expected to be a series of bold moves by Sandusky’s attorney Joe Amendola.
Sandusky, 68, is the former Penn State football assistant coach facing 52 counts for sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years. The charges rocked this college community to its core when they were filed in November and led to the firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno (who passed away in January) and the resignation of school president Graham Spanier.
That this will be a jury not just of Sandusky’s figurative peers, but of his actual neighbors, was a high-stakes gamble Amendola fought to employ. Rather than seek a jury brought in from another part of the state, as prosecutors sought, Amendola fought vehemently to make sure the Sandusky case isn’t just going to be held locally, it’s going to be decided by locals.
The defense believes that a jury inundated with media coverage and public discussion, that has intimate ties to the school and the football program, and that possibly holds both passionate opinions on the demise of Paterno and a familiarity with the victims, can deliver an acquittal.
Amendola preferred that over a group shipped in from another part of the state, say the Philadelphia area, which is more racially diverse, less Penn State-centric and lives outside the Sandusky-trial fish bowl.
“We feel there’s no better place than Centre County from which to select fair-minded individuals to sit as jurors in Jerry’s case,” Amendola argued in February, after prosecutors sought to bring in a jury made up of residents of another part of the state.
Amendola convinced Judge John Cleland to seat a jury right out of this mostly rolling, rural county of about 154,000 people, a place that would be anonymous if not for being home to mammoth Penn State and its powerhouse football program.
The dueling arguments on where to cull the jurors set the tone in what could be an unusual case.
It’s often the defense that seeks a jury pool with less intense knowledge and emotional ties to the case.
This case was different. In January, Joseph McGettigam, the state senior deputy Attorney General, asked for jurors to be brought in from elsewhere because of the blanket media coverage and the fact that university employees, alums, students and, of course, fans of the football program are so prevalent that the community is “philosophically and economically” tied to Penn State.
McGettigam cited a “Gordian knot of conscious and subconscious conflicts and difficulties which the most skillful (juror) could not identify and untangle.”
So deep were the problems with a local jury, McGettigam argued he “anticipat(ed) that it will be thedefendant making such a request.” One of the prosecution’s stated reasons for doing Sandusky’s job for him was concern that relying on a local jury could open up any conviction to appeal.
“It is most often the case that it is the defense that seeks a change of venire when the issue is pervasive publicity regarding a criminal case,” McGettigam wrote. “In the instant case, however, the publicity has been so pervasive and penetrating, and the public comment and, indeed, judgments offered have been so widespread, that the Commonwealth cannot limit its concern only to the potential of prejudice to the Commonwealth’s case.
“In the present extraordinary circumstances, the Commonwealth must necessarily consider more than how best to protect a guilty verdict should one obtain, through the appellate process. Most importantly, the Commonwealth must join with this court to safeguard the defendant’s right to select a jury from a vernie least contaminated by public comment and least susceptible to conscious or unconscious bias for or against the former university employee.”
Amendola, Sandusky’s lead attorney, would have none of it. He expressed disappointment in the state’s attempt and successfully argued that his client would receive a perfectly fair jury a few miles from Beaver Stadium.
Judge Cleland agreed, although he retained the right to change his opinion should he find it too difficult to seat jurors starting Tuesday. Time will tell.
Amendola’s motivations are open to all sorts of speculation. Perhaps he is counting on some lingering support for Sandusky, once a beloved defensive coordinator who helped the program to two national titles. Or maybe he thinks some will view Sandusky as representing Paterno or the school itself, both of which have been raked over the coals. There’s also a chance that Sandusky’s previous charitable acts had won over some residents. Or he could’ve just feared backlash from a sequestered jury hauled halfway across the state.
And perhaps the prosecution was fearful of the same things.
It’s quite a gamble, though, for Amendola and Sandusky.
Local residents are more likely to have been inundated with information and already formed an opinion. They may have harsher feelings toward Sandusky’s charity, Second Mile. And counting on support for Paterno translating to Sandusky, who essentially caused the legendary coach’s downfall and disgrace, is tenuous. They’d also have to return home and explain their decision to potentially angry friends and neighbors. For some in Centre County, this is personal.
This is what Amendola wanted, though. This is where he believes he has the best chance to find a jury willing to acquit his client.
Tuesday he’ll begin to find out if he was correct. Right in the belly of the beast, right at his very neighbors in this bucolic, once quiet region, Sandusky will fight for his freedom.