Rich Hofmann: Sandusky circus begins with disappearing act

Posted: December 14, 2011

BELLEFONTE - "Isn't anybody else cold?" Joe Amendola asked at one point, standing at microphones set up in front of the courthouse steps, about halfway through a news conference that might have lasted an hour.

It might have lasted longer than an hour, but I'm not sure because I left. The attorney for Jerry Sandusky was right about at least one thing: It was cold.

Inside the Centre County Courthouse, the whole thing didn't last much more than a minute; oyez, oyez - sidebar, over. Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach accused of sexual misconduct involving 10 young boys - 10 and counting, perhaps - decided at the last minute to waive his right to a preliminary hearing of the accusations against him. Instead, he entered a plea of not guilty and began the process of being judged on the 50-odd counts lodged against him. Arraignment is set for Jan. 11, but Sandusky will not appear.

Reporters with seats inside the courtroom missed the nauseating quote of the day, from Sandusky, after it was over. He said, "We fully intend to put together the best possible defense and stay the course for four full quarters."

This is the best he could come up with. This is the depth of the man. An accused sexual predator, he reached for a football cliche to describe his legal situation. Sandusky did everything but hold up four fingers as he and his ankle bracelet got into a vehicle and headed home.

And Amendola was worse.

"We're ready to defend," he said. "We've always been ready to defend. Today's waiver has nothing to do with conceding anything. There have been no plea negotiations. There will be no plea negotiations.

"This is a fight to the death. This is the fight of Jerry Sandusky's life. This goes beyond the Penn State-Miami game in '86. This is the game of his life."

OK, maybe it does go beyond that 1987 Fiesta Bowl, but what about Penn State-Georgia in the 1983 Sugar Bowl? Amendola didn't say. Then again, I did leave early.

As it was, the circus began pulling out by lunchtime. The little town of about 6,000 had blocked off streets and provided parking spots for television satellite trucks and planned the thing quite efficiently. Stores opened early to feed media people who began arriving before dawn. The Dairy Queen across from the courthouse offered free coffee refills. And who ever knew there was still such a thing as a Rexall drugstore?

Inside Courtroom 1 - with 100 media seats, 20 for Sandusky's family and friends, and dozens more for spectators chosen in a lottery; with gold leaf on the ceiling and portraits of former judges staring down from the walls - there was great anticipation when Judge Robert E. Scott entered. The belief was that many of the alleged victims would testify, along with Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary, who told a grand jury that he witnessed Sandusky having sex with a 10-year-old in a university locker room.

Instead, it was over in a blink. Amendola said that the decision to waive the hearing had been reached the night before and that it was a "51-49" tactical calculation. On the one hand, the defense lost the opportunity to lock in the accusers to their stories and to observe their demeanor. On the other hand, an uncontested recitation of horrible accusation after horrible accusation was kept from the public.

As Amendola said, "Realistically, all that would have done would have reinforced what you already believe: that Jerry Sandusky is guilty."

While attorneys for several of the accusers saw the waiver of the hearing as the prelude to a plea bargain - "If their intention is to go to trial, this doesn't make sense," said Slade McLaughlin, one of the attorneys for alleged victim No. 1 - Amendola insisted that wasn't the case, and even revealed two pieces of his defense strategy.

One was to suggest that the alleged victims are greedy liars out to make money in civil suits, which is lovely. "What better motivation could there be than money?" Amendola said.

Another tactic was to hammer away at McQueary's credibility. When you take the grand-jury summary of his testimony - that he witnessed a boy being raped - plus subsequent news reports, there are at least three versions of McQueary's story out there, which might be two too many.

Amendola said, "McQueary was always the centerpiece of the prosecution's case," and suggested that if he can undermine McQueary's credibility, it will call into question the credibility of others.

What he did not explain, though, is how one potentially shaky count would affect the nine others. They are not related. They involve different boys and different times and different facts - and there could be more. Amendola acknowledged that one concession he received from prosecutors in exchange for waiving the preliminary hearing is that if there are more charges, there will not be any more Sandusky perp walks for the cameras.

Which will be comforting news to a Penn State community that has seen Sandusky arrested and interviewed in recent weeks wearing all manner of university-logo apparel. In court yesterday, he wore a dark suit.

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