Court in a small town will be national stage for Sandusky hearing
In a cavernous old courtroom with creaky wooden pews for seats and a floor that slopes downhill, Jerry Sandusky’s accusers will begin to tell their stories on Tuesday.
They will describe, either in person or through their grand jury testimony and statements to police, how a man who assumed the role of father figure allegedly crossed the line and sexually molested them.
Sandusky’s preliminary hearing in Courtroom One at the Centre County Courthouse will be a media event the likes of which this quaint borough, population 6,200, has not seen. Hundreds of journalists are expected to descend on a courthouse that is on the National Register of Historic Places. With its 26-foot white columns, marble stairs, clock tower and Christmas garland hung like bunting, it seems torn from a Norman Rockwell painting.
On Monday, crews were clearing the courtyard out front, using cans of white and orange spray paint on the grass to mark up a media “staging area.” Inside, Senior Judge John M. Cleland heard arguments from Michael Berry, a First Amendment lawyer representing a group of national news organizations — including CNN, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press — about how people following this high-profile case will learn about Tuesday’s events.
Bellefonte, the Centre County seat, is about a dozen miles from State College, home to Penn State, and the location of many of the alleged crimes.
The hearing will not be televised. But Cleland’s revised order now permits journalists to text and tweet updates on their laptops, tablets and cell phones from inside the courtroom.
Sandusky, former defensive coordinator for Penn State University’s football team, faces more than 50 counts involving the sexual molestation of 10 boys he met through a youth charity he founded, The Second Mile. He has spoken to NBC’s Bob Costas and The New York Times, denying the allegations, but is unlikely to testify. He is free on $250,000 bail.
He has acknowleged showering and “horsing around” with boys, and says he has an attraction to children, but said it is not sexual in nature.
Tuesday’s preliminary hearing offers the first glimpse of what the accusers have to say beyond what was contained in the grand jury’s initial 28-page presentment. Two other accusers have since come forward and the cases could be consolidated for Tuesday’s hearing.
Preliminary hearings are held to determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence to take a case to trial. Defense attorneys often use the hearings as fact-finding missions, probing for botched police work or inconsistencies in the testimony of the prosecution witnesses.
It is unclear whether the witnesses on Tuesday would include Mike McQueary, an assistant coach who, according to the grand jury, reported seeing Sandusky raping a boy in the Penn State locker room showers. Various and conflicting versions of what McQueary did and didn’t say — or did or didn’t see — have been circulating publicly in recent days.
“The commonwealth is going to put on as little as possible,” said Andrew F. Schneider, a well-known criminal defense attorney in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He said prosecutors might not call McQueary on Tuesday, but at least some of Sandusky’s accusers are likely to testify.
“This is a case that has been vetted and revetted with a fine-tooth comb because the whole world is watching,” Schneider said.
Under Pennsylvania’s recently revised evidence rules, a reading of grand jury transcripts or police statements by a third party is permissible at a preliminary hearing. But this is no ordinary case, so prosecutors are expected to present at least some live testimony.
“I think they have to put on somebody,” Schneider said. “It may come across as a weak case if they don’t. They’re going to want some shock and awe. Don’t be a bit surprised if they put all the accusers on the stand.”
In the unlikely event Sandusky should waive the preliminary hearing, it would send a clear signal a plea bargain is being discussed, he added.
Sandusky’s lawyer, Joe Amendola, told CNN’s Jason Carroll on Sunday that no plea deal was in the works because prosecutors would be seeking what is essentially a life prison sentence for his 67-year-old client.
At Penn State, Sandusky was considered heir apparent to legendary head coach Joe Paterno until Sandusky retired in 1999 at age 55. Sandusky and his wife, Dottie, have staunchly maintained his innocence.
Penn State’s board of trustees removed Paterno and forced out university President Graham Spanier amid outrage over the scandal. Paterno has been criticized for not doing enough to stop Sandusky, although it is not clear what he had been told about the allegations.
Paterno has been recently hospitalized with broken pelvis.
Two other university officials, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz, were charged with lying to the grand jury and failing to report to police what McQueary told them he saw.
Their preliminary hearing is set for Friday in Harrisburg.