Sandusky jury has strong Penn State ties

Posted: June 09, 2012

When Oprah Winfrey was sued by a group of Texas cattlemen in 1998, it was impossible to seat a jury without ties to that industry in Amarillo, a hub for the cattle business.

"We couldn't really avoid it," recalled Charles L. "Chip" Babcock, Winfrey's Texas attorney. "We had 60 jurors brought in to choose from, and 59 had varying connections to the cattle industry and plaintiffs, including one guy who was a rancher and raised cattle."

But those ties didn't hurt Winfrey, who was sued for defamation after a 1996 show on mad cow disease and the beef industry. She won, and that rancher ended up being one of Winfrey's biggest advocates in the jury room, Babcock said.

The lesson learned for the similarly high-profile trial of former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on child-abuse charges: Substantial ties to a trial subject don't necessarily spell doom for the prosecution or the defense. They can cut both ways.

Eight of the 12 jurors have ties to the university or one of the plaintiffs. One middle-aged woman has been a Penn State season ticket holder since the 1970s, and her husband worked with a prosecution witness. Three university instructors, one already retired, also were chosen.

Also, two of the four alternates said they attended Penn State or work there.

Experts point out that a jury is supposed to be made up of one's peers, and in Centre County - where Penn State is the heart and soul - those selected form a representative jury.

As the prosecution stated, one in three residents of the county either attended the university, works there, or has worked there.

Judge John M. Cleland made a point of blatantly stating the likelihood of having jurors with such connections - and that was the right thing to do, said Suzanne Mannes, an assistant professor of psychology at Widener University.

"The judge has brought the issue of bias to the forefront of people's minds," said Mannes, an expert on cognitive bias in the criminal justice system. "By making people aware of the biases they have, it makes it easier for them to consider those biases when making their decisions."

Those whom lawyers don't pick for a jury can be just as revealing as their eventual choices.

In Sandusky's case, Cleland removed several potential jurors from consideration for specific causes such as a friendship with a witness or a professed inability to keep an open mind about the case. And prosecutors and Sandusky's defense were given limited opportunities to strike individuals from the pool with no explanation.

Many struck by Sandusky's lawyers had either been victims of violent crime or developed strong ties to law enforcement.

One woman in her 50s told the court her brother had been accused, and later acquitted, of child molestation, but another sibling was serving a state prison sentence on similar charges. Another man said he had once tried to adopt a grandniece who was sexually abused by her father.

Sandusky lawyer Joseph Amendola cut both.

At least five parents of boys in the age range of Sandusky's alleged victims also found themselves booted by his defense - a trend that prompted one prosecutor to jokingly ask Amendola during jury selection Wednesday, "What do you guys have against children?"

Prosecutors focused their jury strikes on people with strong ties to the university who felt the Sandusky case had tarnished its image.

They cut a Penn State chemistry teacher in her 50s after she said she had witnessed firsthand the damage the case had wrought. A 2003 Penn State graduate who now works for a meteorology service was removed after describing himself as a voracious newsreader with several professional contacts in journalism.

But expert jury consultants caution against trying to read too much into any particular panel's makeup. There are always a few people selected who would not make either side's ideal jury list, said Howard Varinsky, who has advised lawyers in cases against Michael Jackson, Jack Kevorkian, and Phil Spector.

One man who made it onto the Sandusky panel - a 24-year-old Penn State senior - showed up to his interview in a university T-shirt, said he knew several witnesses, and held strong, but not unswayable, opinions about the case.

"Being a student there in the fall, I was opposed to everything that was happening," he said.

When Amendola asked the judge to take him out of consideration, Cleland refused.

"He said he could be fair. He said he could exercise his own judgment," the judge said.

Babcock, a partner at the firm of Jackson Walker L.L.P. who was a sports reporter for The Inquirer in the 1970s, said lawyers typically try to avoid jurors with ties to the case. But in special circumstances, as in the Winfrey suit and Sandusky's criminal case, it is not possible.

A solid jury consultant can spot a person who - even with ties - is likely to be an ally, he said. Babcock, who has a national trial and appellate practice, had used Phil McGraw, a psychologist, as a consultant. McGraw went on to become "Dr. Phil" of television fame, raised to prominence in large part by Winfrey and her case.

Both Babcock and McGraw noticed the cattle rancher.

"This cattle rancher we knew as a pretty strong free-speech guy," said Babcock.

To prepare for Winfrey's case and virtually all the cases that he has tried in the last 20 years, Babcock brought in a mock jury from the host community to gauge local reactions. He advertises for volunteers for a research project, and participants must sign a confidentiality clause. Babcock tries the case in front of them and mines their reactions.

"The pretrial jury research will tell you what demographic characteristics would be good or bad in the lawsuit," he said. "If I were doing the [Sandusky] case, I would have done a mock trial."

Sandusky's lawyers did not return calls this week on whether they held a mock trial in Centre County. But no jury consultant was apparent in court this week - at one point, Sandusky himself effectively overruled his defense lawyer, declaring that a potential juror would be fair and should be seated.


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.

This article includes some information from press pool reports.

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