Both the prosecution and the defense in Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse trial presented strong opening arguments Monday. Prosecutor Joseph McGettigan wisely chose to embed certain words and images in the minds of jurors off the bat. He flashed the photos of each of Sandusky’s accusers as children, the faces of young, innocent boys and urged the jurors to listen to their testimonies not as the adults they are now, but as children. This was a smart tactic because the witnesses are now aged 18-28, some may be bigger than Sandusky, but by showing their childhood photos, the jurors now have a mental image of these grown men as the vulnerable children they were while listening to their graphic, sad and sickening stories.
The prosecution also tried to knock down the defense’s key argument from the start: if this abuse really happened, why did these accusers take so long to come forward? To answer that, McGettigan very effectively highlighted three words on a projector screen: humiliation, fear and shame. Now, those three powerful words, paired with the powerful images, are ingrained in the minds of jurors as they listen to testimony.
Meanwhile, Sandusky’s defense laid out all their cards in opening. Joseph Amendola first tried to convince jurors this isn’t the type of man who could commit such heinous crimes. He presented the image of a man who loved children so much he and his wife adopted six kids and started the Second Mile foundation to help at-risk youth. He also oddly stated Sandusky could even take the stand. To me, this is a tactic of claiming, look, my client is so innocent he’s willing to come up and testify, though I highly doubt he’ll actually take the stand.
Then, and this is the key to his defense, Amendola questioned why these accusers are stepping forward all these years later. He’s trying to poke holes in their credibility. He said many of the accusers had already hired separate civil attorneys, alluding to the fact that they may be motivated by the financial payout they could get from a civil suit. He questioned why no one went to the police after Mike McQueary told Penn State officials he witnessed inappropriate behavior in a shower more than ten years ago. He brought up the fact that the county district attorney declined to prosecute his client in 1998 due to insufficient evidence.
Finally, he mimicked the Michael Jackson defense, the “I only shared a bed with boys” defense that got Jackson acquitted of child sex abuse charges in 2005. Amendola claimed Sandusky grew up in a generation where it was ok to shower with others, setting up his claims that Sandusky may have showered with these kids, horsed around with them, but stopped short of committing the crimes the accusers allege.
Yet, opening arguments are only a small fraction of what’s needed to build the case and convince the jury of Sandusky’s guilt or innocence. Like I said before the trial started, this case comes down to the first witness to testify. Choosing a strong first accuser to take the stand is critical to the prosecution’s case because they must hook the jury with that first testimony. If jurors believe the first accuser, they are much more likely to believe the others. Yet, if they aren’t convinced by the first accuser and have doubt in their minds already, even a strong testimony down the line won’t be as effective. Luckily for the prosecution, Victim 4 turned out to be the ideal first witness in this tragic case.
Victim 4’s graphic testimony left nothing to the imagination, as he told jurors how Sandusky performed oral sex on him 40 times and used intimidation, bribes and threats to ensure the abuse continued for several years. As Victim 4 told stories of being forced to shower together, having his shoulders pushed down in the shower to perform oral sex, being touched on the thigh in car rides, and being abused in hotels and on Penn State’s campus, it would be difficult for jurors not to feel sympathy for him.
More importantly, he was able to effectively explain why he took so long to come forward, and he stood up well on cross-examination as Amendola insinuated he came forward due to financial motivations. Victim 4 told jurors he didn’t say anything about the abuse to his mother or grandmother at the time because he liked the attention Sandusky gave him, and liked having a father figure. He said Sandusky would tell him that he could one day join the Penn State football team, though he weighed just 90 pounds at the time. He testified that Sandusky also lavished him with gifts including golf clubs, drum sets and snowboards and even let him wear the famed jersey of Penn State played LaVar Arrington.
Just as the prosecution had earlier stated the victims did not come forward sooner due to fear, shame and humiliation, Victim 4 explained those exact feelings. He said he was teased and called Sandusky’s “butt buddy.” He said Sandusky once threatened to send him home when he resisted Sandusky’s advances in the hotel bathroom at a bowl game, claiming Sandusky told him, “you don’t want to go home, do you?” He said he was scared and denied what happened and did not step forward until he realized Sandusky had done this to other children, saying “I feel responsible for what happened to other victims.”
Yet, even if some jurors didn’t believe Victim 4’s stories, or his explanations as to why he took so long to come forward, it’s hard to ignore the numerous love letters Sandusky penned to him, and that’s why Victim 4 is key to Sandusky’s conviction. The bulk of this case is a he-said, she-said with no physical evidence. It’s Sandusky’s word versus these young men. Yet, the letters Sandusky wrote to Victim 4 are just the physical evidence that some jurors may be looking for to find him guilty. In one letter, Sandusky wrote, “I know that I have made my share of mistakes.” Mistakes? That sounds a lot like admitting guilt to something to me.
In another letter, titled “The BJ Story,” Sandusky wrote about a man named “Jer” riding in a car together with a young man who “didn’t want those rides to end” with his young friend. After Victim 4 told the court about oral sex and inappropriate touching during car rides, what else could the jury assume that letter was about? The defense may call expert psychologists to explain the letters as consistent with someone who suffers from Histrionic Personality Disorder, which leads people to act in an emotional and dramatic way to draw attention to themselves. However, in my mind, those letters cannot be explained as anything other than evidence of sexual abuse and they’ll end up being the nail in the coffin leading to his conviction.