Sandusky Trial: Jury Will Need To Set Aside Penn State Ties for Fair Verdict
Their names are O.J. Simpson and Emmett Till, and they have nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky and his child molestation trial, set to start Monday at Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte.
What these names provide, however, are a precedent, that, despite a mountain of evidence laid out in 52 counts in a child sex abuse case, a jury is not impartial, without bias, nor fair. It is 12 humans, sensitive to emotional reagents that spark cognition.
“O.J. was a hero of the black community,” said Wes Oliver, a law professor at Widener University’s Harrisburg campus. “You had a largely black jury. There was a difference there. It wasn’t just O.J. was respected, there were allegations against the [Los Angeles Police Department] that resonated from members of that jury.”
Simpson, of course, was acquitted of murder charges. The Till case consisted of an all-white, all-male jury acquitting two white men in the murder of a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago in the height of the Jim Crow era. In closing arguments, defense attorney Sidney Carlton berated the jurors into acquittal, saying, “your ancestors will turn over in their grave, and I'm sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.”
The Sandusky trial has nothing to do with race. But there’s parallel. And it has everything to do with color — namely blue and white. Ten of the 16 jurors, alternates included, have ties to Penn State or potential witnesses in the case.
On one hand, Oliver said, you can imagine people with close ties to Penn State being very upset that the Sandusky allegations have embarrassed the university, drug its name through the mud and brought down its patriarch, Joe Paterno.
On the other, it only takes one juror to blindly associate Sandusky as a football giant who was revered in the community for his work through The Second Mile, the charity he founded in 1977 that the prosecution alleges was how Sandusky met and groomed his victims.
“That person might be hearing testimony in a slightly different way,” Oliver said.
Oliver, who has closely studied and followed the Sandusky case, expected a much more thorough examination of the potential jurors.
“It’s something interesting about the fact that we rely upon jurors to self report whether or not they’ll be biased or not,” he said. “If they said I won’t be biased, that’s the end of the story.
“Now, very few people are actually gonna get up and say, ‘Yeah, I just can’t be fair.’ Most every one of us believes we can be fair, but it takes a considerable amount to delving into a person’s history and story before you actually know if their self-reporting is right.”
Judge John Cleland, like most judges, Oliver said, was satisfied with blind trust. Jury selection took less than two days, a “complete shock” to Oliver.
Among those serving on the seven-women, five-men jury:
Juror No. 3 — Her husband had worked with Mike McQueary’s father, John, at his medical group, and she is a former football season ticket holder. Sandusky convinced his attorney, Joe Amendola, to keep her under consideration despite the attorney wanting to strike her, saying, “I think she can be fair.”
Juror No. 7 — A Penn State senior from Penns Valley who works at Penn State’s Multi-Sport Facility, he knows Steve Turchetta, the Clinton County high school coach who hired Sandusky as a volunteer assistant. Turchetta was also the assistant principal when Sandusky was accused by alleged victim No. 1, a student at the school who helped launch the criminal investigation.
The Penn State senior, who showed up to his interview wearing a blue Penn State archery T-shirt, had a cousin play football at Penn State under Joe Paterno for six years, and his mother works for the State College Area School District. He usually does desk work over the summer and laundry for track, baseball and softball during the school year. The student said he had opinions about the case, follows Penn State-related content online, but said he could sit in a jury box and make fair decisions.
“My opinions right now are not set in stone by any means,” he said, adding, “I don’t think there’s any reason to believe anything truer than what I hear in court." Amendola moved to strike the student for cause, but the judge denied the motion.
Juror No. 11 — A dance teacher in Penn State's continuing education program, this woman, who looked to be in her late 30s, occasionally has conversations about the case with her husband, who is a media specialist at a transportation center at Penn State. She knows Kelly Hastings, a potential witness, through her dance career. She is also the mother of a 6-year-old boy, which led to an interesting exchange between her Amendola.
"As a mother, I would have concerns. I know with my child, there's a lot of sides to a story," she said.
Amendola replied, "You recognize kids don't always tell the truth?"
This dynamic was unavoidable from the moment all agreed the jury was going to be picked in Sandusky's backyard.
Said Cleland: “We're in Centre County. We're in rural Pennsylvania.” Such connections “can't be avoided.”
The stage is set. Prosecutors are expected to call as many as eight alleged victims to testify starting next week. The defense’s strategy is built around destroying their credibility, saying the men are accusing Sandusky in order to reap financial gain.
And when both rest their case, 12 men and women, Sandusky’s peers, who can thank him for help making Penn State the meaningful place it is for them today, will determine his fate, the wild card of a trial that could define this community for years ahead.