Penn State and Happy Valley prepare for media onslaught with Sandusky trial set to begin

Posted: May 28, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The most turbulent school year in Penn State's history ended earlier this month. Students departed, warm weather arrived, and a fragile lull settled over a college town that will never get its innocence back.

That temporary serenity figures to disappear on June 5, when jury selection begins in the case of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach whose November arrest on child-molestation charges triggered a tsunami of turmoil here.

The trial, which the Centre Daily Times on Sunday termed "the biggest case in Centre County history," coupled with the anticipated August release of ex-FBI chief Louis Freeh's investigation of the university's handling of the entire affair, again will turn the media spotlight on State College, Penn State, and the tarnished legacy of Joe Paterno.

It's a prospect that fills many scandal-weary residents with dread.

"With the news media dredging up every detail . . . it won't go away," said Jim Meister, a Penn State graduate and the former president of the State College Quarterback Club. "I think people up here have tired of the whole tragedy and would like to put it behind us. But that's probably not possible until the trials are done and we get the Freeh report, which should show us who did what and when."

Assuming a recent defense motion to dismiss the 52 counts against Sandusky is denied, the selection of jurors from a pool of Centre County residents will begin next week in the old courthouse that looms over Bellefonte's quaint downtown.

Satellite trucks will clog the streets, reporters will overflow the tiny courtroom, Penn State and Paterno again will become topics for fevered national debate, and the sordid details that Judge John Cleland's gag order has helped quash will come spilling out.

The case against Sandusky could hinge on the believability of the 17 victims cited in the grand jury presentment, many of whom, their pasts having been vetted by both sides, are expected to be challenged aggressively on the stand by defense attorney Joseph Amendola.

But the widely respected Cleland, attorneys said, will do his best to keep a lid on what could be explosive proceedings.

"It looks like this judge has a firm control on it," said Marci Hamilton, a Bucks County lawyer who has filed a civil suit on behalf of one of Sandusky's alleged victims, John Doe A. "He will prevent it from becoming a circus. There will be a number of principles and rules in place that will keep it very controlled and judiciously managed.

"He's already done the gag order. I would expect he'll set all sorts of rules about the press and will do a good job of making sure it's not a circus."

That might not be easy. Hamilton and other child-welfare advocates believe that the victims will come under heavy fire from Amendola. Even then, she said, it could be a teachable moment on a painful subject.

"What's important about this case is that everybody is paying attention," she said.

And if, as anticipated, Mike McQueary takes the stand, the trial's temperature could boil over.

McQueary, also a former Penn State assistant, has testified that he witnessed an encounter between Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy in a shower in the Penn State football building. That incident, which McQueary told prosecutors took place in 2002, now is alleged to have happened in 2001, a crucial alteration that could affect this case as well as those against Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, the Penn State administrators accused of covering up the allegation.

Sandusky, Paterno's longtime defensive coordinator, who has been under house arrest, faces 460 years in prison if found guilty on all counts. At age 68, even a single conviction could put Sandusky in jail for the rest of his life.

"The way things are rolling out it looks like [the defense] is going to go do battle with all of these accusers," said Bill Moushey, a Pittsburgh journalist who has cowritten a book on the case, Game Over: Jerry Sandusky, Penn State and the Culture of Silence.

"From a legal point of view, Sandusky is looking at life no matter what, whether he pleads out or gets convicted of one count."

But as troublesome as the trial figures to be on this area's already battered psyche, it's the investigation headed by Freeh that looms as the greater threat to the teetering concept of Happy Valley.

Kenneth Frazier, the Philadelphia-born Penn State graduate who chairs the in-house Freeh commission, said that more than 400 witnesses have been interviewed in the far-reaching probe into the university's connection to the scandal.

Its central thrust, many here believe, is determining exactly what Penn State administrators and legendary coach Paterno knew about Sandusky's alleged behavior and when they knew it.

After 46 years as the Nittany Lions' head coach, Paterno was dismissed by the trustees for what they termed "a failure of leadership" in a late-night phone call Nov. 9. The coach, who died of lung cancer two months later, testified that McQueary told him about the shower incident and that he relayed the information to his superiors.

"The sense I have after talking with quite a few folks who have been interviewed by the investigative team is that it's very Paterno- and athletics-centric," said Anthony Lubrano, a strong Paterno supporter who was one of three new trustees elected to the university's board earlier this month. "What that suggests to me is that the analysis will conclude that if Joe didn't know, he should have known.

"But none of us close to Coach Paterno expect there to be a smoking gun, some communication that indicates Joe knew something more than he said he knew."

In the meantime, residents here will uneasily wait for peace to return to their valley.

"I think in general the people of Happy Valley want this to go away," Moushey said. "And they want it to go away as soon as possible."


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz.

 

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