Legal experts say Sandusky case will hinge on accusers' credibility

Posted: June 12, 2012

When opening statements begin Monday in the child sex abuse trial of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, both the prosecution and defense face significant hurdles, legal experts say.

Seven women and five men — many with ties to Penn State — will hear the case that scandalized the university last year and led to the ouster of former president Graham Spanier and legendary football coach Joe Paterno. (Paterno died in January.)

Sandusky, 68, who is charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period beginning in the mid-1990s, has denied all the allegations.

The list of potential witnesses, in addition to the young men who have accused Sandusky, are Paterno's widow and son, and assistant coach Mike McQueary, who said he saw Sandusky naked in a team shower with a boy in March 2002 and reported it to Paterno.

Legal observers said the case ultimately will hinge on the credibility of Sandusky's accusers, and the ability of both the prosecution and defense to bolster or discredit the accusers.

"Their testimony will be humiliating, embarrassing, painful, and they're not going to want to talk about it," said Barbara Ashcroft, a Temple law professor and former chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Montgomery County District Attorneys office.

"The challenge for prosecutors is to unleash that pain so that the jury can feel what the alleged victims experienced," she said, adding that it was important for the alleged victims not to appear rehearsed or prepped when they testify.

Ashcroft also said that sex abuse victims often don't recall specific dates and times of their molestation, only what happened, and how it happened. She said prosecutors must "educate the jury" about the nature of sex abuse — that it typically occurs "in dark, ugly places and behind closed doors" and that victims feel shame and embarrassment — in order to mitigate any defense strategy that jurors shouldn't believe the accusers if they can't recall dates and times and waited years before accusing Sandusky.

Meanwhile, the defense faces it owns set of challenges with the jury, not the least of which is that the prosecution has eyewitnesses to alleged abuse.

"I would celebrate if I had the McQueary evidence," said a former child-abuse prosecutor. "It is so rare in these kinds of cases where you have an eyewitness corroborating what a complainant is saying. That in and of itself could propel the jury toward conviction."

Sandusky's attorney, Joseph Amendola, is going to have to be "strategic" in his cross-examination of the accusers, meaning he has to be able to "poke holes" in their testimony "without turning off the jury," Ashcroft said.

There also could be several, currently unknown factors that could potentially sway jurors one way or the other, experts said.

"We don't know if the defense has uncovered any skeletons in the background of the alleged victims that can be used to impeach their testimony," said Barbara Zemlock, a Harrisburg attorney and president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. Legal observers discounted speculation that the jury's Penn State connections might influence the outcome. While there have been examples where jurors have decided cases based on their own prejudices, jurors take an oath to be fair and impartial and decide cases based solely on the evidence presented in court.

The bottom line, Zemlock said, is whether or not the jury believes Sandusky's accusers are telling the truth. "If they believe them, Jerry Sandusky will be convicted and spend the rest of his life in prison," she said.

Also, will Sandusky take the stand in his own defense? If so, will jurors believe his denials?

Contact Michael Hinkelman at 215-854-2656 or hinkelm@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @MHinkelman.

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