The trial many thought would never happen begins in Centre Co.

Posted: June 12, 2012

I didn't think we'd get to this point.

From the day Jerry Sandusky was charged last November, I figured the insular Penn State community would find a way to spare "Happy Valley" the national attention of a long child-sex abuse trial.

I thought for the sake of his school, for the sake of his family, Sandusky would plead to charges that he repeatedly abused young boys.

I mean, the case involves PSU's previously pristine football program, its legendary, now late coach, Joe Paterno, and allegations of university coverup.

An unholy mess; one with potential impact on fundraising, grants and student applications, all while restirring controversy over the school's ham-handed handling of the case and the firing of Paterno.

Don't think the university's concerned? In April it hired one of world's largest PR firms, Edelman, for $2.5 million, or slightly less than the $2.6 million it donated to fight child abuse.

That's a lot of interest in promotion and protection.

So why would Sandusky — a true blue Nittany Lion who played for Paterno, became his heralded assistant and, for a time, his heir apparent — risk further hurt to a program and place he undoubtedly loves?

There's presumption of innocence, of course.

There's also this: no deal can satisfy both sides.

Given the charges — 10 boys over 15 years — an offer of 10, even 15 years in prison fuels outrage; given Sandusky's age (68), 20 years is a life sentence.

So here we are. The trial's to start Monday in quaint Bellefonte, Centre County's seat, "Pennsylvania's Victorian Secret," in the heart of Penn State country.

It is, despite broad attention, truly a local affair.

A block behind the courthouse is Union Cemetery wherein is interred Evan Pugh (1828-1864), Penn State's first president; James Irvin (1800-1862), an iron-maker who gave 200 acres on which to build the campus; and Hugh Nelson McAllister (1809-1873), a founding member of PSU's board of trustees.

The university's only 10 miles from the courthouse.

Centre County judges recused themselves because of links to the school.

Most jurors and two of four alternates have ties to Penn State.

Among them: a 24-year PSU professor with teenage sons; a PSU continuing-ed instructor whose husband works in university media relations; a retired PSU prof with 37 years' service; a PSU student whose cousin played football there; a woman whose husband worked with the father of former assistant coach and key prosecution witness Mike McQueary; and a young man whose father worked at the school for 30 years.

This reflects Penn State's omnipresence in the county. It clearly can cut both ways. Loyalists might be angry about the pain Sandusky brought the school; or they might be protective.

So the state judicial governing body, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, wanted a standby county from which to pick a jury — just in case.

But the presiding judge, Common Pleas Senior Judge John Cleland, of McKean County, widely praised for handling pretrial issues, has a jury in place.

Cleland was handpicked by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille to probe the '09 Luzerne County "kids for cash" scandal because of his expertise in juvenile justice. Castille tapped him for Sandusky because of his temperament.

"We figured we'd have a press-frenzy in Centre County and he has the kind of demeanor to handle that," Castille tells me.

The trial could last four to six weeks; though many say it'll end before July 4.

The defense witness list is close to 60, including Paterno's widow, Sue Paterno; his son, former QB coach Jay Paterno; ousted PSU president Graham Spanier; and Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim, who won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the case. The prosecution lists about another 24 witness.

Doesn't mean they'll all be called. Just suggests a vigorous effort on both sides — at a trial I didn't think would happen.

For recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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