Experts differ on whether quick timetable of Sandusky case will affect appeal
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Experts agree that the turnaround time of just 11 months from charges to sentencing in the criminal sex abuse case against former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was very quick.
But they differ on whether that issue, alone, will have any impact on the man's appeals, which the defense has said are forthcoming.
Sandusky, 68, was sentenced Tuesday to 30 to 60 years in prison, and McKean County Senior Judge John M. Cleland called it a de facto life term.
Judge Cleland, who was praised by observers as running a fair and tight trial, repeatedly rejected defense requests in the lead-up to the trial for postponement.
Lead attorney Joseph Amendola told the judge several times that there was no way he would be prepared for trial in time for the June 5 start date for jury selection. He even attempted to withdraw from the case to force the judge's hand to delay the trial.
That tactic didn't work.
Sandusky went to trial and after two weeks of testimony -- including vigorous cross-examination by the defense -- was convicted on 45 of 48 counts against him.
At the conclusion of sentencing, Mr. Amendola again raised the rush to trial, alleging that his client was denied his due process rights.
He made particular note of the other high-profile defendants in the case that brought Penn State into the spotlight.
Retired senior vice president for business and finance Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley, who are charged with perjury and failure to report suspected child abuse, won't go to trial until January.
That gives them 14 months to prepare for two counts -- including one that is the equivalent of a traffic citation -- Mr. Amendola said, as opposed to his client, who was charged in November with more than four dozen counts, covering 10 victims, covering a span of more than 15 years.
"There were a lot of witnesses, a lot of victims," said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. "The time span was enormous. The attorney general's office has a team working on this, but Amendola doesn't have the same resources and staffing as the prosecution."
Mr. Burkoff believes the lack of time to prepare is a valid complaint.
"In a case as serious as this, you really want to give the defense all the time they reasonably need to prepare," he said.
Even so, Mr. Burkoff continued, the Superior Court will not likely order a new trial.
"Even if a trial judge makes a mistake, unless that mistake actually prejudices the defendant in the ultimate outcome of the trial, there will be no reversal."
Instead, the appellate court will view it as harmless error, he said.
But veteran Pittsburgh defense attorney Patrick Thomassey disagrees.
"It wouldn't surprise me at all that at some point down the road he's awarded a new trial," he said. "I thought the judge was making a huge mistake pushing it to trial."
For Mr. Thomassey, a large part of his defense in such a case would be doing extensive background investigations into each individual victim, which Mr. Amendola has said there was not time to complete.
"That's the kind of case you investigate for a year if you want to defend it," Mr. Thomassey said.
A trial judge has significant discretion in how a case is handled.
The standard for preparation for trial, Mr. Burkoff said, is a "reasonable amount of time."
"What's reasonable, quite often, is different for a judge than for the attorneys," he added.
Another appellate issue likely to be raised by Sandusky is ineffective assistance of counsel. That argument would be raised at a later point in the appeal process and would involve someone other than Mr. Amendola.
From the day Sandusky went on national television to be interviewed by Bob Costas -- in which it took him seven seconds before he denied being attracted to young boys -- attorneys across the country have been questioning Mr. Amendola's strategy.
On Wednesday, some said that early decision will likely be questioned again on appeal.
Duquesne University law professor Wes Oliver said Sandusky's appearance with Mr. Costas seemed to be designed to bring media attention to Mr. Amendola.
"Without any preparation, he put his client out there to enhance his own media profile to the detriment of Jerry Sandusky," Mr. Oliver said.
While the decision to do the interview presents a claim for ineffective assistance, Mr. Oliver still does not expect it to be successful, because again Sandusky will be unable to show specific prejudice.
"It was damning," he said. "But the evidence [at trial] was overwhelming."
Although Mr. Amendola may have been attempting to get his client's story out into the media, or even sway the jury pool, Sandusky's clear lack of preparation simply made public perception worse, Mr. Thomassey said.
"I think that was a big mistake," he said. "The jury's going to think, 'He talked to Bob Costas, why won't he talk to us?' "
First Published October 11, 2012 12:00 am