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Federal Appeals Court Reinstates Spanier Conviction

A federal appeals court on Tuesday reinstated former Penn State President Graham Spanier’s conviction on a child endangerment charge, reversing a lower court’s 2019 ruling that found the conviction to be unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a federal district judge erred in tossing that conviction on the grounds that Spanier’s due process rights were violated. The decision means the 72-year-old Spanier, who was ousted from the university in November 2011 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, once again faces a two-month jail sentence for the misdemeanor conviction.

It was not clear when he might be required to begin serving the sentence and his attorneys, Samuel Silver and Bruce Merenstein, declined comment.

“No one is above the law, especially when it comes to the welfare of children. Today’s ruling to reinstate the conviction of Graham Spanier proves just that,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement. “Spanier turned a blind eye to child abuse by not reporting his knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s assaults to law enforcement.’

Spanier was initially charged in 2012 and convicted in March 2017 for his handling of a 2001 report about former assistant football coach and Second Mile charity founder Sandusky with a boy in a campus locker room shower. Spanier has maintained former Athletic Director Tim Curley and Senior Vice President Gary Schultz only described horseplay in relaying the report made by then assistant coach Mike McQueary. They agreed to report the incident to Sandusky’s charity for at-risk youth, where prosecutors said he found most of his victims, and instruct him not to bring children to campus facilities. They did not take the matter to law enforcement of child welfare officials.

At trial, Spanier was found not guilty on a felony charge of endangering the welfare of a child, which alleged a ‘course of conduct’ for not reporting Sandusky, and a felony conspiracy charge.

On appeal, Spanier’s attorneys argued that he was unconstitutionally convicted for actions that took place six years before changes to the state’s child endangerment law. Under the previous statute that was in place in 2001, the child endangerment law did not apply to positions such as Spanier’s that did not directly supervise a child. Changes to the law in 2007 added liability for those who did not directly supervise a child but employed or supervised someone who did. 

In April 2019, a day before Spanier was scheduled to report to county jail to begin serving his sentence, U.S. Magistrate Judge Karoline Mehalchick agreed with Spanier’s contention that his due process rights were violated by an unreasonable retroactive application of the 2007 child endangerment statute and that instructions to the jury at his trial wrongly indicated they could convict under provisions of the 2007 law. She granted Spanier’s habeas corpus petition that threw out the conviction.

U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Fisher wrote in a 34-page opinion on Tuesday overturning that decision that Spanier’s due process was violated only if the state Superior Court’s decision upholding his conviction ‘was an ‘unexpected and indefensible’ interpretation of the child endangerment statute in light of prior law. We conclude that it was not.’

Prosecutors from the state attorney general’s office had argued that both the 1995 and 2007 statutes addressed the same supervisory conduct.

Among other cases, Fisher cited the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling upholding the child endangerment conviction Monsignor William Lynn in Philadelphia for covering up clergy sex abuse of children. In that case, the court ruled that the 1995 statute was not limited to direct supervision of children.

‘The 1995 statute covers ‘[a] parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child,’ and the Supreme Court held that ‘the statute is plain and unambiguous that it is not the child that [Lynn] must have been supervising, but the child’s welfare,’ Fisher wrote, adding that supervision occurs even without direct contact with a child through subordinates.

The decision is the latest in web of cases dating back to November 2011 when Sandusky was charged with multiple counts related to child sexual abuse following a grand jury investigation. He was convicted on 45 counts in June 2012 and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in state prison. He maintains his innocence and is still continuing appeal efforts.

Curley and Schultz both pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment charges in 2017. They each served short jail sentences later that year in Centre County.