Jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Bellefonte, Pa., as former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky stands trial on charges of abusing at least 10 young boys over a nearly two-decade period — a scandal that nearly brought down the university’s storied football program and prompted its legendary head coach, Joe Paterno, to retire in disgrace. Sandusky was arrested last November after a grand jury investigation unearthed the alleged 15-year-long scandal.
Sandusky will be tried on 52 counts of criminal sexual abuse, involving ten young boys, that allegedly occurred over the course of his career at Penn State and while he was head of The Second Mile, the charity he founded to help troubled youths.
The charges came to light in a 23-page grand jury investigation released on November 4, 2011, which allege wide-reaching wrongdoing from 1994 to 2008 — both by Sandusky and by the Penn State coaches and administrators who were allegedly informed of the accusations against him but failed to notify the proper authorities. (The scandal claimed the career of university president Graham Spanier as well.)
The 68-year-old Sandusky, who retired from the football program in 1999 but retained full use of the Penn State locker room facilities — where it has been alleged that some of the abuse took place — has denied all wrongdoing. If convicted on all counts, he faces more than 500 years in prison. He’s remained under house arrest since the scandal broke.
The trial will hinge on the testimony of the alleged victims, eight of whom were named in the November indictment and at least two more who’ve come forward since the initial charges were filed. Eight of the accusers have been identified and are prepared to take the stand against Sandusky.
However, one of the most important witnesses for the defense — a victim whose abuse was allegedly witnessed by Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary in 2001 — has remained anonymous and will not share his story. McQueary’s testimony remains among the strongest evidence of Sandusky’s supposed misdeeds, though the prosecution recently modified the date on which he said the abuse occurred, changing it from March 2002 to February 2001. Sandusky’s lawyer Joseph Amendola has said several times that he expects a number of the boys to recant their statements.
At least five of the accusers who are slated to testify — all of whom are now adults — have petitioned the court to hide their identities using pseudonyms, a request which Judge John Cleland has denied. “While I will make every effort to be sensitive to the nature of the alleged victims’ testimony, once the trial begins the veil must be lifted,” Cleland explained Monday.
But Cleland was careful not to open the information floodgates too wide: he also ordered that reporters be barred from reporting on the proceedings while the court is in session. The rule is a common one for Pennsylvania trials, and is no surprise following the gag order imposed on attorneys for both sides since April.
Tuesday’s jury selection will mark the first time Sandusky has appeared in court to face his accusers. He waived his right to a preliminary hearing in December and since then, both sides have been preparing for the June trial, with Sandusky’s attorneys making a number of requests to delay it. Judge Cleland rejected the defense’s request last week to push the back the trial after Amendola requested more time to prepare. And Monday the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied their final delay request.
The unprecedented case has brought worldwide attention to State College, Pa., a town of 45,000 centered to a large extent around Penn State University — which is itself centered to a large extent around the school’s nationally ranked football program. Students and administrators who were used to only attracting attention after big gridiron wins suddenly found themselves vehemently defending their school in media reports. After Paterno, who was Sandusky’s boss and was allegedly told about the abuse but failed to alert authorities, was fired in November, riots broke out on the usually calm campus.
Therein lies the biggest problem for the prosecution this week: with an overwhelming majority of Centre County residents counting on Penn State for their paychecks, the area is dominated by employees of the university and its loyal fans — making the selection of an impartial, unbiased jury difficult. Judge Cleland has rejected the prosecution’s request for an out-of-town jury, but he’s said he would reconsider the notion if the jurors couldn’t be selected in a reasonable amount of time.