Sandusky trial turns to defense case
The defense in Jerry Sandusky’s child sexual abuse trial could begin putting on its own witnesses early this week, and one of them could be the former Penn State assistant football coach himself.
Sandusky’s lawyer suggested in opening statements that Sandusky, 68, may take the stand, although that is a risk that defense attorneys usually avoid.
It can be difficult for any defendant to hold up under the questions of a skilled cross-examiner, said David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor.
”If they put him on, that’s really a sign that they think they cannot succeed unless they put him on,” Harris said. ”Because it’s a huge risk.”
Jurors already have heard Sandusky deny the allegations, in the form of an audio recording of a stilted television interview Sandusky conducted shortly after his November arrest.
They also listened to 20 prosecution witnesses over four days, including eight men ages 18 to 28 years who said they were his victims when they were children.
In a large and crowded courtroom, with a crush of national media listening to their every word, the accusers recounted in detail their experiences. Their testimony forms the heart of the case the government is trying to prove, that Sandusky is a predatory pedophile, in the words of lead prosecutor Joe McGettigan.
The men said he plied them as children with gifts, dazzled them with the prestige of Penn State’s vaunted football program and then scaled up physical contact from a hand on the knee or a fatherly kiss to fondling, repeated oral sex and in some cases violent anal rape.
Now they will hear the defendant’s side and witnesses could begin testifying as early as Monday. Defense attorney Joseph Amendola’s opening statement, court documents and four days of witness cross-examination provide something of a road map to a strategy aimed at creating enough doubt in jurors’ minds to avoid a conviction that could send Sandusky to prison for life.
The defense has sought to show how the stories of accusers have changed over time, that they were prodded and coached by investigators and prosecutors, that some are motivated to lie by the hopes of a civil lawsuit jackpot, and to paint Sandusky’s interactions with children as misunderstood and part of a lifelong effort to help them, not victimize them.
”Jerry, in my opinion, loves kids so much that he does things none of us would ever do,” Amendola said at the start of the trial.
Lawyers pursuing a credibility defense try to give jurors reasons to disbelieve the narrative presented by prosecutors, and a financial gain motive or a changing story can be part of that, said Harris, the Pitt law professor.
”This is all standard procedure for building a reasonable doubt defense,” said Harris, who has worked as a defense lawyer and prosecutor. ”What they don’t have here is any way to say, `OK, these kids have been molested, but somebody else did it.”’
The first four days of testimony, however, may already have cast the die, if jurors have made up their minds about the credibility of the eight accusers, six without a father in their lives, three who have never known their fathers. That doesn’t mean they can’t be swayed by defense evidence, and the judge will caution them to keep an open mind, Harris said.
”But what we’re talking about is human nature here, and people have heard a lot already,” he said.
In a recent court filing, Sandusky’s lawyers have asked the judge to allow them to put before jurors the out-of-court statements made by the former Penn State president Graham Spanier and Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, two university administrators who are fighting criminal charges they lied to the Sandusky grand jury and did not properly report suspected child abuse. If permitted, that could help Sandusky undercut the credibility of a witness who says he saw Sandusky sexually abusing a yet-unidentified boy in a team shower more than a decade ago. The judge has not ruled on the request.
The defense also wants Judge John Cleland to allow into evidence the entire contents of ”Touched,” Sandusky’s autobiography, saying in a court motion that the entire book would ”contextualize the quotes and avoid misleading characterizations,” although so far prosecutors have used the book as a source of photos, not quotes.
On Friday, they won an effort to argue that letters and other alleged grooming by Sandusky were not an attempt to manipulate the boys so that he could molest them, but rather evidence of ”histrionic personality disorder” on Sandusky’s part.
During cross-examination, Amendola pressed the accusers for dates and locations, details of their involvement with the kids’ charity Sandusky founded, arrests or drug problems, contacts they have had with Sandusky in the years since the alleged abuse ended and the terms of representation deals with civil lawyers. At least six said they told incorrect or incomplete stories in early contacts with police, and three testified that some of the details only came back to them in recent years.
In some cases, the witnesses said they were embarrassed or did not want to get dragged into the case, while others spoke of recent improvements in what they recall.
He questioned so-called Victim 1, whose case began the wider investigation, about whether he had ever told a neighbor he and his mother would get rich from a civil suit.
”No, I have dreamed about living in a big house, I have dreamed about driving nice cars,” Victim 1 testified. ”Doesn’t everybody?”
The young man described as Victim 7 said his memory of the allegations has improved since he began counseling a year ago.
”Through counseling and through talking about different events and through talking about things in my past, different things have triggered different memories and I had different things come back,” he testified. ”It’s changed a lot about what I can remember today and what I could remember before, because I had everything negative blocked out.”
Jurors appear to be paying very close attention to the trial, which in its first week moved along more quickly than many observers have predicted, leaving the prosecution close to wrapping up its case in chief, something that could happen as early as Monday.
During jury selection Sandusky’s lawyers asked potential jurors about ties to a list of people who might be witnesses, including members of coach Joe Paterno’s family and Dottie Sandusky. It is unclear, however, which of them will take the stand.