The Penn State sex abuse trial of former athletic coach, Jerry Sandusky, is under way in Centre County, PA with seven of the jurors having significant ties to Penn State University. Jerry Sandusky and his attorney, Joe Amendola, have been all smiles and grins as they enter the court house each day. And Jerry Sandusky has been seen laughing at some of Judge John Cleland’s jokes to the jury panel. The defense won a big hurdle by having the right to have jurors chosen from the local community of Centre County, which is the same as Penn State. The court house in Bellefonte, PA is located 10 miles from the college. While the prosecutors had concerns about the jurors coming from Centre County, the judge did not agree. After all, one is entitled to be tried by a jury of their peers as Sandusky deserved and argued. And so the peers on the jury panel will have significant ties to Penn State, where Sandusky is alleged to have performed some of his sex acts on children.
It looks like the deck may already be stacked so far in Sandusky’s favor with the jury. One is a current Penn State student who works in the athletic department. There are 3 jurors who currently teach at Penn State. Another is a retired Penn State professor for over 37 years. One earned an undergraduate and Master’s degree from Penn State. One is a season football ticket holder since the 1970’s. I’m sure the defense is pleased with the jury.
The Sandusky defense strategy is the opposite from the Casey Anthony trial where defense attorneys requested that she could not get a fair trial from jurors in the county where she resided. And the Court ordered jurors from Pinellas County, FL while the trial took place in Orlando, 100 miles away. That proved beneficial to her case as she was found not guilty. It could be the same outcome for the Sandusky trial but for opposite reasons.
And unlike the Casey Anthony jury, the Sandusky jury will not be sequestered. So the jurors will be able to leave the court room each day and go to their homes. They will not be kept in a hotel until the conclusion of the case. Of course, the judge will advise them to refrain from talking to family and friends, watching TV, using Internet, Facebook and Twitter to discuss the case. In other high profile cases, a jury has not always been sequestered like in the Conrad Murray trial. With the Internet a part of our everyday lives and living in a close and small knit community like Centre County, PA, it appears even more difficult, if not impossible, to follow these rules.
A jury panel is a key factor to the outcome of any trial. That’s why lawyers spend so much time on jury selection. While every jury is sworn under oath to render a fair and impartial verdict, it’s sometimes difficult to set aside one’s conscious or subconscious personal feelings. That will be the hardest job for these jurors who have significant ties to and feelings about Penn State.
When the news about Jerry Sandusky first broke, all eyes were on Penn State. With the firing of Joe Paterno and others linked to the knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s actions, the Penn State image was tarnished. The hard question will be whether jurors will be able to separate Jerry Sandusky, who is on trial, from Penn State. It is undeniable that many in the area felt Penn State was just as much on trial as Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky worked as an assistant coach at Penn State for over 30 years and helped to build the Penn State power house image with famed and beloved coach Joe Paterno.
Make no mistake, Jerry Sandusky is the actual defendant here with Penn State lurking in the background. Whether the jurors with ties to Penn State can tell the difference will remain to be seen. The prosecutors are expected to start off with a big bang with handwritten letters from Sandusky to one of his victims, presumed to be victim number 4. And presumably the first victim will testify about gifts including golf clubs that he received from Sandusky as a child. He is now 28 years old. The victims will have to use their real names and not pseudo names. The prosecutor lost that battle too.
Sandusky faces 52 counts for alleged sex abuse acts with 10 boys occurring over 15 years. If convicted, he faces enough jail time to spend the rest of his life in jail. And for that amount time and seriousness of the charges, he should not be seen smiling or laughing. Opening statements begin on Monday. The trial is expected to last the entire month of June.
Debbie Hines is a former prosecutor and founder of LegalSpeaks, a progressive blog on women and race in law and politics. As a legal and political commentator she has appeared in national and local media including the Michael Eric Dyson Show, NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates, RT TV, CBC- Canadian TV, NPR, XM Sirius radio, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Black Enterprise among others. She also writes for the Huffington Post.