Jerry Sandusky jury selection to begin

Jerry Sandusky is banking on his best chances being in Centre County.
Jerry Sandusky is banking on his best chances being in Centre County.
Posted: June 06, 2012

About 600 potential jurors are slated to pack Centre County's courthouse Tuesday as lawyers begin the tedious task of finding a dozen who have not already made up their minds about Jerry Sandusky.

In a county where the child sex abuse allegations against the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach have already tarnished the reputation of a university and led to the downfall of local hero and former head coach Joe Paterno, that task is likely to prove challenging.

Still, Sandusky's lawyer Joseph Amendola is convinced of one thing: His client's best chances for a fair hearing lie at home.

"We feel there's no better place than Centre County from which to select fair-minded individuals to sit as jurors in Jerry's case," he said in a February e-mail. A judicial gag order has since prevented him from discussing the case.

On Monday, the state Supreme Court denied a last-minute defense request to delay the trial.

"I think we're ready to go," said Jim Koval, spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. There are "a few loose ends between now and Tuesday morning, but we're pretty confident we're ready."

In a series of rulings Monday, Common Pleas Judge John M. Cleland barred reporters from posting Internet updates from inside the courtroom and denied a request from several of Sandusky's accusers to testify under pseudonyms.

He also stepped into a spat between prosecutors and Sandusky's defense over background information that Commonwealth attorneys have gathered on potential jurors. Cleland denied Amendola's request to share that data.

"A juror's opinions are shaped by many things: life experience, age, sex, marital status, education, employment," Cleland wrote. "But, ultimately, our society's faith in the jury system rests on the confidence that the jury's collective judgment is shaped by the deliberative process of sifting and sorting through evidence that has been presented in the courtroom."

Whether the lawyers can find a group of people who can ignore all that has already gone on outside the courtroom, though, remains to be seen.

Prosecutors allege that Sandusky, who worked 30 years under Paterno and founded one of the state's largest nonprofits serving underprivileged youth, molested 10 boys over a period of 15 years. He met all of his accusers through his charity - the Second Mile - and purportedly abused many of them on the Penn State campus.

But within hours of the 68-year-old's arrest in November, the news rippled across Centre County. Its aftershocks have left the region permanently changed.

Four high-level university officials, including then-President Graham B. Spanier as well as Paterno, lost their jobs for their handling of earlier allegations that came up as early as 2001. Paterno died of lung cancer two months after he was fired.

Students took to the streets in protest of Paterno's dismissal, destroying property and ignoring police orders to disperse. Hurt feelings from that day have still not completely healed.

And last month, the Second Mile - which had provided after-school programs, summer camps and mentoring to hundreds of local children - announced plans to shut down operations.

Despite all that, Amendola has taken the unusual stance of fighting to keep his client's case in Centre County, where media coverage of the alleged crimes had reached a saturation point and nearly everyone has an opinion on the fallout.

While, typically, defense lawyers are the first to make the argument that negative publicity prejudices a local jury pool, prosecutors sought in February to bring in out-of-county jurors.

"The university and Centre County are inextricably intertwined both philosophically and economically," prosecutor Joseph E. McGettigan III argued in a court filing. "Prospective jurors . . . would face a Gordian knot of conscious and even subconscious conflicts and difficulties."

Cleland ruled in Sandusky's favor, but said he was concerned about the difficulty of impaneling an impartial local jury.

Prosecutors have estimated that one in three Centre County residents attends, graduated from, or works for Penn State. Hundreds more maintain ties to the Second Mile, either as participants in its programs or as donors.

Those associations could work in Sandusky's favor, said Matt McClenahen, a State College criminal defense lawyer who grew up collecting sports trading cards that Sandusky's charity produced.

"Jerry Sandusky has done a lot of good here over the years," he said. "Before all this, we thought of him as Penn State's Mr. Rogers. "

With that in mind, prosecutors have already sought to learn as much as possible about those who have responded to jury summonses, including information on their work histories, ties to the university, and news consumption habits.

Amendola has hired a jury consultant to help him with the selection process.

Howard Varinsky, a leading jury expert who advised lawyers in high-profile cases against Michael Jackson, Phil Spector, and Jack Kevorkian, said that although widespread abhorrence of child abuse makes selecting juries in trials such as Sandusky's difficult, it is possible to impanel a group with an open mind.

"If I were advising the defense, I'd take single people with no children. They don't have that child-emotional bond," he said. "Prosecutors will want jurors with those connections."

Cases that have come under the glare of publicity face additional challenges, he said.

Potential jurors sometimes "fool themselves into thinking they can be fair because here they are in a front-headline case," said Varinsky. "In a normal case, everyone's trying to get out of jury duty; here, everyone is banging on the doors to get in."

But, ultimately, for any lawyer faced with picking the 12 individuals who will decide a client's fate, the process comes down to trusting instinct, said Michael Engle, past president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"At the end of the day, with the limited information we have, we're really just guessing," he said. "You've just got to go with your gut."


Contact Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218 or jroebuck@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @jeremyrroebuck.

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