Utter the words Jerry Sandusky today and the image that comes to mind for most is that of a heinous monster accused of using his position of power to take advantage of vulnerable young boys, molesting them and stealing their innocence. Yet, just a year ago that same name conjured up images of a revered figure who helped Joe Paterno catapult the Penn State football team to success and a generous man who devoted his time and energy to helping at-risk youth through his Second Mile foundation. The stark contrast between these two Sandusky’s is what jurors in his sexual abuse trial will have to grapple with; which one is he?
The prosecution must prove not only is Jerry Sandusky capable of these crimes, but that he committed these crimes. All the defense must do is convince the jury this isn’t the type of man who could do this. From a distance this case seems like a slam-dunk for the prosecution. There are ten different alleged victims. There’s an independent witness, football assistant Mike McQueary. Yet, take a closer look at Centre County, Pennsylvania, a place so intertwined with Penn State that prosecutors asked the judge to select jurors from another county, and you’ll see that trying to convince a jury that Sandusky is a monster and not their beloved idol, won’t be an easy task.
On the first day of jury selection there were even some potential jurors wearing Penn State jackets and t-shirts. No wonder prosecutor Joseph McGettigan told the judge “to ask members of that community to … insulate themselves from the institution which informs so many aspects of their lives is asking too much.” So how will prosecutors get a jury to believe the ten accusers and not the defendant in a case with no physical evidence and nothing more than a he-said, she-said?
It comes down to the first witness they put on the stand. The key to swaying jurors’ minds is hooking them with the first accuser to testify. If the first accuser is convincing in his testimony, makes a good impression on the jurors and his story stands up on cross-examination, then all the others will basically fall into place. The prosecution needs to get the jury to believe that first story, and if they believe that first witness, even if the others aren’t as strong, they’ve already convinced the jury that the defendant is at least capable of these heinous crimes. It’s a lot easier to convince a jury he molested all ten if they believe he molested the first.
As for the defense, they must make a tactical decision as to whether to attack the credibility of these accusers. It’s a risky move because these ten accusers already have sympathy going in. It’s dangerous because if they go after one of these accusers and it backfires, the jury is going to be pissed at the defense and have even more sympathy for these witnesses. Joseph Amendola, Sandusky’s defense attorney, has likely poured through the discovery and done background research on each and every accuser and will decide whether to implement this risky strategy on a case-by-case basis.
Their strongest defense is to mimic the Michael Jackson case. Jackson was acquitted of all 14 criminal counts related to the alleged molestation of a young man in 2005 and, like this case, there was no physical evidence, just Jackson’s word against his accuser’s. Like this case, Jackson was a beloved idol who prosecutors had the task of convincing he was not only capable of these crimes, but committed them. And like this case, the key question was did he do something merely deemed inappropriate by sharing his bed with young boys, or did he take it one step further and molest them? The question here is did Jerry Sandusky merely shower with these children, gross and inappropriate but not criminal, or did he sexually abuse them? Just as Jackson’s defense was adamant he only shared his bed with children, Sandusky’s defense will try to claim he only showered with the boy in the now-infamous 2001 incident.
We’ve already seen a preview of this defense in the interviews Sandusky granted to NBC and the New York Times late last year. “I have horsed around with kids. I have showered with workouts. I have hugged them and I have touched their legs without intent of sexual contact,” he told Bob Costas, as he denied that he was a pedophile. Like he’s claimed in these interviews, Sandusky’s defense will try to downplay the facts and argue whatever happened doesn’t rise to the level of criminal charges.
The only independent witness that can corroborate these accusers’ allegations is Mike McQueary, who claims he saw Sandusky rape a child in the men’s locker room. It seems like McQueary’s testimony would help the prosecution in building their case against Sandusky, but the defense is likely ready to tear into McQueary the second they start cross-examination. If he really did witness a rape, why didn’t he intervene to stop it? Why didn’t he immediately call the police? They’ll question his motivations as well. Whatever danger there could be in questioning the credibility of the ten accusers, you can bet the defense will try to paint McQueary as an unreliable witness. That’s why it’s best the prosecution save McQueary for the end, after they’ve already built most of their case convincingly.
The judge said he’d like the jury selection to be completed by Friday afternoon and for the trial to begin Monday, so we’ll see how the prosecution’s case is shaping up starting next week. In the meantime, watch my discussion of the case with former America’s Most Wanted correspondent Jon Leiberman and sexual abuse victim & children’s advocate Erin Merryn on Monday’s CrimeLine webcast.