Spotlight falling on Jerry Sandusky defense
Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach who is standing trial on 52 counts of child sex abuse.
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BELLEFONTE, Pa. -- Prosecutors initially estimated that their portion of the sexual abuse trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky would take about two weeks.
But, as the case played out last week in a Centre County courtroom, that estimate proved to be far off the mark.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Joseph McGettigan and Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina wrapped up their case witnesses in just four days, giving everyone involved in the case a three-day weekend before the defense is expected to present its case Monday.
Experts agree that the fast pace of the first half of the trial could be attributed to a number of factors, including prosecutors streamlining their witnesses, the judge running an efficient courtroom and the defense doing quick cross-examination.
"It was pretty amazing," said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. "It seemed to me they learned a strategic point from other big prosecutions. They stripped down their case to the basics, and the basics really were the victims. They didn't get lost in minutiae."
Prosecutors from the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office called 20 witnesses in four days, including eight alleged victims, two men who reportedly witnessed Mr. Sandusky showering with unidentified boys, one investigator and a handful of people called to provide corroboration for the accusers' stories.
Mr. McGettigan spent the most time questioning alleged Victim No. 4, the first person called in the trial.
That direct examination lasted a little more than two hours. Only twice did the prosecutor come even close to half that time -- with alleged Victims No. 1 and 7, whose direct testimony lasted about 50 minutes.
"Sometimes, there's a prosecution tendency to overdo it," Mr. Burkoff said. "It seems like the prosecution team here took a very sensible tack."
Wes Oliver, a law professor who watched the first week of trial in Bellefonte, agreed.
He believes Mr. McGettigan laid the groundwork with the first two alleged victims called, and used them and their backgrounds as context for the others.
"If you think the jury believed the first two victims, you don't tire them out with needless detail [from the rest,]" Mr. Oliver said. "Once the commonwealth has met its burden of proof on one or two, the jury can't help but presume the rest of them are telling the truth.
"As a practical matter, it almost becomes the defendant's burden to contradict their stories."
While defense attorney Joe Amendola attempted to do that, Mr. Oliver said there wasn't much progress made.
He credited Mr. Amendola with doing a "masterful job" in cross-examining the alleged victims, given the dearth of material he had to work with.
"I think they did a very good job of getting what they got," he said.
Mr. Burkoff said getting an occasional inconsistency or pointing out a lapse in memory will not likely be enough to turn the case.
"It seemed to me, what they were unable to do is establish some kind of emotional hook -- to put Mr. Sandusky in some different light for the jury."
That, for Mr. Oliver, is one of the reasons he believes the defendant has to testify.
"This is a real delicate thing for him, but I think he's got to tell his story, and I think he wants to tell his story."
It's important for the defense for Mr. Sandusky to take the stand and fully deny the allegations against him. He must also hold it together during his testimony, Mr. Oliver said.
Because of the strength of the prosecution's case -- and the lack of much success thus far in cross-examining the alleged victims -- Mr. Burkoff thinks there is less risk in calling Mr. Sandusky to the stand than there might otherwise be.
"If he's not doing well already, then what's the harm in putting him on the stand? Maybe he'll do a good job," Mr. Burkoff said.
As for calling Dottie Sandusky -- who was sequestered last week because she is on the defense witness list -- knowing that Mr. Sandusky's wife is standing by him could help sway jurors to his side, Mr. Oliver said.
"That in itself is a powerful signal to the jury," he said.
Mr. Oliver expected, based on the pre-trial motions filed by Mr. Amendola, that his cross-examinations might be long and rambling. Instead, he said, they were tight and efficient.
Still, Mr. Burkoff said, "there certainly wasn't one strong theme you would think could actually grab a jury."
Although Mr. Amendola repeatedly questioned the accusers about hiring civil attorneys and possible financial benefit if lawsuits are filed, there wasn't much traction made otherwise.
It was expected that the defense could have had some success in the cross-examination of Mike McQueary, the former Penn State graduate assistant who testified he saw Mr. Sandusky sodomizing a young boy in the locker room showers in February 2001.
The grand jury presentment listed the date of that occurrence as March 2002, but shortly before trial, the prosecution amended the charges to a date 13 months earlier.
There were also questions swirling around about how Mr. McQueary handled what he saw. Instead of immediately going to police, he called his father and then, the next day, Penn State coach Joe Paterno. He was then referred to Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz.
But, on cross-examination, the defense was unable to make much on either of those points.
Instead of alleging that Mr. McQueary was flat-out lying, defense attorney Karl Rominger spent a lot of time questioning the vantage points in the locker room from which the witness claimed to have seen the alleged assault.
"Everyone thought McQueary might be the weak link, and he wasn't weak at all," Mr. Burkoff said.
Mr. Oliver questioned why Mr. Amendola didn't take the cross-examination of Mr. McQueary, and instead allowed Mr. Rominger to do it.
"Maybe they were trying to play good cop/bad cop, and Rominger was supposed to dismantle him," he said. "If that was the plan, it failed miserably."
Instead, Mr. McQueary seemed to steer the cross-examination himself. Even when being confronted by some inconsistency, he directed the answer back to what he says he saw: "I saw something horrific, that's why the night sticks in my mind. I saw Jerry in the shower with a young boy doing something sexual."
The defense did not go after any of the alleged victims particularly hard and completely avoided anything about their sexual history.
"You take a great risk when you do something like that, of alienating the jury," Mr. Burkoff said. "The last thing you want a jury to think is that you're making it worse with humiliation."
Mr. Oliver agreed.
"Joe Amendola did a wonderful job of walking that tightrope between contradicting and bringing up inconsistencies and not alienating the jury," he said.
Both professors agreed that the defense has its work cut out this week.
Mr. Oliver expects that Mr. Amendola will call a number of character witnesses, including young men who attended Second Mile camps and have nothing but great things to say about the defendant.
He also anticipates that Mr. Amendola will call people to testify to prove some of the contradictions he got out on cross-examination with the alleged victims -- for instance, did a witness say he expected a big payday by filing a civil lawsuit in the case? Or did Mr. Sandusky ever drive a silver convertible, as one of the young men claimed?
"It's going poorly for the defense, but of course, we've only heard from the prosecution side," Mr. Oliver said.
First Published June 17, 2012 12:00 am