State seeks outside jury for Sandusky abuse trial
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Calling Penn State University and Centre County "inextricably intertwined; both philosophically and economically," the state attorney general's office on Tuesday filed a motion asking that an outside jury be chosen to hear the criminal case against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
Although the prosecution's motion repeatedly references the "complete saturation" of media coverage in Centre County of the scandal that led to the termination of legendary coach Joe Paterno and the resignation of university President Graham Spanier, it is the relationship of the community to the school that takes up most of the government's argument.
"The citizens of Centre County feel a laudable and proper sense of ownership of, and participation in, the fortunes of Penn State," wrote Senior Deputy Attorney General Joseph McGettigan. "To ask members of that community to break down that alloy and insulate themselves from the institution which informs so many aspects of their lives is asking too much.
"It is unfair and impracticable."
But defense attorney Joseph Amendola disagreed and said he was disappointed in the commonwealth's motion.
"Jerry and I have always believed a fair and impartial jury could be selected from a jury pool comprised of Centre County citizens," Mr. Amendola wrote in an emailed response. "Jerry's case has drawn national attention as a result of which we feel there's no better place than Centre County from which to select fair-minded individuals to sit as jurors in Jerry's case. We will vehemently oppose the commonwealth's motion for a change of venire."
Mr. Sandusky is accused of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. A grand jury recommended charges against him in November.
In its motion, the prosecution called media coverage of the Sandusky case "spectacular in its breadth and intensity," and "without analogue or peer in the history of the commonwealth."
But more than that, Mr. McGettigan wrote that if jurors were chosen from Centre County, they would face "a Gordian knot of conscious and even subconscious conflicts and difficulties which the most skillful voir dire could not identify and untangle."
It is unusual for the prosecution to file a motion seeking a change of venire, said criminal law professor John Burkoff at the University of Pittsburgh.
Typically, that is a motion filed by the defense, he said. In this case, the prosecution's request is made even more interesting based on the argument about the relationship of Centre County residents and Penn State.
"[T]he AG is saying that there's every chance that loyalty to Penn State might lead a juror to be biased for or against Sandusky," Mr. Burkoff said. "Remember it's Sandusky's alleged behavior that has besmirched that great university's image. So if the AG is right, a jury from Centre County might well lean toward the prosecution, not the defense."
Mr. Burkoff speculated that because of the defense opposition to it, it is unlikely that Senior Judge John M. Cleland, who is handling the Sandusky case, will grant the government's motion.
No matter what, the professor continued, he does not think it will be overly difficult to pick a jury, even though the case can be characterized as high-profile not only in Pennsylvania but nationally.
"This is a sensational case, but it's not the first sensational case," he said.
Even if members of the jury pool have read about the charges against Mr. Sandusky, that does not mean they will have already formed an opinion about it, Mr. Burkoff said.
More than that, he continued, "there will be people from that venire who won't have paid a bit of attention to this."
In the prosecution's motion, Mr. McGettigan also writes that he does not believe that the trial should be moved out of Centre County, because of that same relationship he identified between the community and Penn State.
He believes that Centre County ought to be the "site of justice," but also that it would be "logistically impractical" to hold the trial elsewhere, since witnesses for both sides reside there.
Mr. Amendola has until next Wednesday to file a written response to the attorney general's motion.
First Published February 1, 2012 12:00 am